- Publisher: MichaelMilton.co.uk
- Published: September 1, 2014
THE EPIC CREATIVE WRITING MA WIKI
From September 2013 to September 2014 I did a Master’s in Creative Writing at the University of Kent. I tried to keep a record of the whole experience, because I would have found such a thing extremely useful when I was researching these courses. (Especially since this was about to cost my life savings and I had no real idea of what I was actually getting myself in for).
I found posts about doing an MA (actually, mostly about MFAs in the U.S.) but not a comprehensive week by week breakdown. So if you’re thinking about doing a Master’s, or are just curious about what went on from week to week, hopefully this page will help you out.
This weekly log is over 26,000 words, and certainly one of, if not the most comprehensive account of doing an MA in Creative Writing on the internet. So, you know, get comfy…
PART I: HOW TO GET ACCEPTED
I originally applied to a Master’s programme in January 2011. I sent the first 5,000 words of a much rejected novel off to the University of East Anglia. The novel, because I’d worked on it most, and the university, because it was one of the few I knew of that delivered such a course.
Needless to say, I was not accepted. What I learned from this probably seems obvious, but I’m going to write it here for those of you who might be rushing into this whole process:
1/. Don’t decide to apply and then do so within two weeks.
This is what I did. And it just isn’t enough time to find out what you need to know and to get your application into good shape, even if you do have a writing sample that you’ve done a lot of work on.
2/. Don’t apply to somewhere because it’s what you know.
The range of courses out there and what they offer seems almost infinite when you start doing your research. I suggest finding out about every single one – where they are, who teaches on them and how the course is delivered. Google the authors you don’t know, find interviews and read their work.
You will also want to be in an inspiring setting, and many towns/cities won’t be for you. Make the most of Google Earth and Images to check out the universities, but if possible, get yourself to an open day.
At an open day you’ll have the chance to meet the teachers, students and get a feel for the atmosphere of the university. This will be invaluable, not just in knowing if the course is for you, but to be able to visualise yourself doing it.
I spent months researching. Pour over every detail and be sure about what you want.
3/. Don’t send work that isn’t as good as you can get it.
Here is the process my work went through on applications one and two:
1/. First draft.
2/. Read a lot of articles and books about writing for advice to improve work.
3/. Attempt to put this advice into the work.
4/. Read actively, comparing other books to my work.
5/. Thought about applying to an MA.
6/. Had a session of help with a real life novelist at my university and realised how valuable a Master’s could be.
7/. Decided to apply with two weeks until the deadline.
8/. Had no time to work on my stuff, doubted it, doubted myself, applied anyway, and waited for the inevitable rejection.
1/. First drafts of several different works, chose to work with a short story and the beginning of a new novel.
2/. Worked through 5-6 drafts / edits / revisions.
3/. Did an online writing class with a professional novelist. Received comments from both the novelist and the other students enrolled on the course.
4/. Paid a novelist I trusted to look at my work.
5/. Developed a writing group with people from the class and my peers.
6/. Sent my work to three different people, three different times, for full line by line edits.
7/. Made revisions, checked errors, improved and added.
8/. Sent the “finished” products to everyone willing to spell and grammar check for me.
9/. Read everything aloud multiple times.
10/. Double checked all my word counts for the different universities.
11/. Saved my finished samples in .doc or .pdf form into seperate folders for each university I was applying to.
12/. Applied, and waited for my *INEVITABLE* acceptance letter.
This process, as opposed to the fortnight long period of my first application, took around six months. And while the outcome wasn’t necessarily inevitable, I knew that I’d done everything possible with my ability at that point.
If you’re a less experienced writer, getting help is going to be valuable in making your application. To this end I suggest:
1/. Finding a local writing group (check local universities / libraries / cafes / bookshop websites or noticeboards)
2/. Join an online writing community.
3/. Create your own writing group (like I did) with combinations of the above.
Before we finish on the application process and get onto the week by week breakdown of the degree, a final note on applying: Personal Statements.
WRITING YOUR PERSONAL STATEMENT
It may seem like a simple task, but fitting everything into word counts varying from 300-500 words (or “on a single page”) is tougher than you might think.
I spent countless hours trawling online for advice and example letters. If you want to read my application letters, click sign up to receive a booklet with the letters and resources I found online. The most important points that I discovered during my research were:
1/. Know your strengths and weaknesses: From a personal perspective as well as a writing perspective. What will you bring to the course, and what do you need to work on while you are there. Knowing this will help build the shape of your statement.
2/. If you want to mention writers you admire, mention an eclectic mix: If you have a writer you admire over all others and only write his/her name, then it could be taken as you only read that one person. Maybe that person is not viewed in the same way by the people running the course. Choose wisely and widely.
3/. Unique points. If there’s something unique in your background, it’s probably worth mentioning: This is especially true if it is a big part of your work. This could be anything from religious background, to having grown up on Airforce bases around the world, to being a piano genius. Show your unique perspective, particularly if it’s connected to your work.
4/. Show that you have studied what their course entails: This doesn’t need to be lies, filler or waffle. Just be honest. Every course has great aspects and compliments don’t hurt. Say why you would like to experience their course in particular. Show that you have thought about it.
5/. Other transferable skills: This is different to uniqueness as this is more common skills that are still going to be relevant. Co-operation, work-shopping, maturity, respect, etc. Remember, you will have to read and critique the work of sensitive writers – show you can do this like a grown up.
When it comes to writing the statement, put it through the same process as the writing sample. Write, let it breathe, come back to it, cut unnecessary words, get others to read it (especially if you know anyone who is quite good at this stuff), and send it out to any grammar Nazis that you may know to check everything over.
Not much to say here, other than: BE CAREFUL. Different schools want different things. Word counts for personal statements and writing samples differ, some U.S. colleges want multiple statements covering writing, background and work. Other courses ask for a C.V. (resume). Name and rename files as requested by the university, file them in separate folders, and double check everything before sending. Most of all:
Now for the weekly grind of what an MA is actually like, and what we did in class: (NB: These posts were written while completing my degree, between Sept 2013 – Sept 2014).
The course starts next week and we’ve received our class info.
There are four contact hours each week. This seems quite thin, but we’re expected to be writing long projects, have reading lists to get through, not to mention reading and critiquing the work of others.
CREATIVE WRITING 1
Is a writing based module where we’re expected to complete 8,000 words of our projects. By the first class we need to have prepared a 300 word synopsis of what those 8,000 words are part of (novel, novella, short story collection, etc). By week two we need at least a thousand words to hand over to the class for critiquing.
The rest of the term will be workshop based (questioning and ciritiquing each others’ work). We received notes on friendly conduct during workshops, what kind of words we should and shouldn’t use. (UPDATE: Each teacher does work-shopping very differently).
After a mid term “Writing Week,” we then move onto one-to-one sessions with our tutors and in the final week there is a Masterclass.
THE READING LIST: (NB: This is recommended, and only Strunk & White is suggested for student purchase. UPDATE: I found Monkeys with Typewriters very useful).
Admittedly, I wanted to do a different module (American Modernism, within the English Department), as a form of research for the book I’m currently working on. As it turns out, this is the most popular module in the department, and first dibs is for those doing American Studies, so it filled up quickly and I was not allowed to take it. I’m going to take the perspective that this happened for a reason, and at least I’m thrown into the deep end, writing from the get go.
This course involves reading and discussion of modern novels alongside time spent on writing exercises, workshops and feedback. This alternates week to week, so it’s a book or stories one week and then a workshop the next. Once again, we have to write, talk about writing, talk about books we’re all reading, what makes them good, what makes them bad, and so on. It’s also one of the compulsory modules for the course (along with fiction 2, or Poetry 1 and 2 if you’re on the poetry stream), so no choice about it regardless of your feelings! At the end of the term, 8,000 (different) words required to pass the module.
THE READING LIST: (For my group with Amy Sackville)
Next week is most likely going to be very introductory stuff, so that basically gives us a week to get going on the first book, which is The God of Small Things. I started it many years ago and couldn’t get into it, but that’s the perfect reason to try again and I’m sure it will be a completely different experience this time. (UPDATE: It’s freakin’ amazing).
ISN’T THAT ALL A BIT OXBRIDGE-MAN-BOOKER-LIT-FICCY?
Sure, but I’m suspecting that’s because this is Amy Sackville‘s territory, and this is where her expertise is. So that’s cool. I did think it might be a bit more varied, like a sci-fi (or a piece of genre fiction) and maybe even a YA book since a lot of authors have crossed those boundaries with massive success (Mark Haddon, John Boyne, et al). Surely as long as the standard is high it makes sense. Aren’t we always hearing that we should read outside our own “genre”?
The work around for this rigid lit-fic list seems to be the more varied list for FICTION 2 in the spring term, as well as the wider reading list given in our online recommended reading:
Check out the links, load up your kindles, and I’ll see you in week 1! (UPDATE: I read half of this recommended reading list during the year).
TERM 1 WEEK 1
Creative Writing 1
Today was just an overview of the module. The class is quite small (10), and was split into two groups. The work from each group will be work-shopped on alternating weeks, followed by one-to-one tutorials and the odd writing week here and there too. By the end of the term, our work will have been work-shopped three times (up to 3,000 words each time), and we will have had two 1-2-1s with Patricia (up to 1,500 words each time). So the potential to have 12,000 words looked at before handing in a portfolio of 8,000 words for the course assessment.
The class brought up some interesting points, particularly in how to approach criticism and why to approach it in this manner. In a nutshell, we’re not allowed to speak while others are discussing our work, the advice being to “stay quiet,” and accept the alternate viewpoints from different readers. I asked if we could ask questions about the criticism, but again the advice was that even the questions may be leading or defensive and so we have to save those for outside class.
Following on from that, we are encouraged to read and work with each other (and ask those questions) outside of class time, which obviously makes a lot of sense, as everything is essentially down to us in getting what we want out of the course.
I was offered a teaching job this week, the hours of which meant that I had to swap out of Amy Sackville’s class and into Alex Preston’s. This means both my classes are on a Wednesday now, which means an exhausting day of brain use. The reading list is different (see below), but is in the same vein:
I’m excited to know how it’s going to work, and it’s already looking like it’ll be over with quickly. I’m eager to make the most of this single, fleeting blip of time when I have the opportunity to just write, get and give commentary, talk a lot about books, develop my voice and make colossal mistakes before going out and doing the same in public.
Finally, there are readings/chats every Thursday by various authors, both in university and in Canterbury itself. This is also a good opportunity to learn and grow. And just to meet some real life writers to see that they are real people and that any of us can be one too. Somebody has to be, after all.
TERM 1 WEEK 2
This week made me feel good about writing again. I went through my project, which still has enough mystery to make me want to follow through and see where it’s going, but no so much that it seems like a waste of time.
I went through it all to decide how to split the work up between my workshops. Next week in Creative Writing 1, I will have a 20 minute workshop on 3,000 words, and in Fiction 1, I am first up for the 45 minute workshop on a piece up to 2,500 words.
Creative Writing 1:
In class this week, we spoke about issues and questions that had revealed themselves as we researched our work and then we did a short writing exercise. Along with two others, I had to take a scenario and attempt to turn it into a plot outline for a story.
My method was essentially;
1/. What comes to mind?
2/. What is the opposite of that? (so as not to present a cliché)
3/. How can I lead the audience in a different direction?
Interestingly, the three of us who did this exercise came up with very similar ideas, and almost all of us attempted to get away from cliché, which goes part way in explaining how new clichés are born.
This developed into a discussion about cliché and language (the exercise the other students did was a language exercise). But also how the three of us who had similar stories could have taken only one of these as an outline and would each produce three very different stories, so what does it matter about plot, when there are so few actual plot lines anyway?
In fiction 1 we discussed Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee (see here for how to pronounce Coetzee), a South-African Nobel Laureate. The book is a slim one, but carries several weighty blows. The language shows us why he’s won a nobel prize, it’s also abound with literary allusions and political allegory, and to top it all off, the story leaves a lot of questions for us to continue pondering long after reading.
Some people got into a debate about whether or not it was a moral tale and whether or not it was about redemption. I did a pretty bad job of explaining that for me, that didn’t really matter, and that I believe the whole point of the book is transition.
Throughout the book, every person and every thing is in a state of transition, whether they have lost their job, are having their farm taken over, being sexually or violently abused, committing adultery for the first time, or are an animal awaiting it’s death.
I do feel that the characters all went through a change, but ultimately, they are still in the midst of it when the book ends, and I feel that this was a stronger theme and allegorical device than whether or not they “grew” or learned something. The point seemed to be more that the world is changing around them and they have no choice but to adapt and change with it, despite how much some people try to keep on being as they have always been. It seems that each character is forced into questioning who they are and what that means in the midst of the situations that are thrust upon them. The protagonist, his daughter, the man who helps on her farm, they are all in transition, as is the South Africa around them, and none of them know what the outcome of it all is to be.
After discussing the book, we went on to look at how the protagonist was built as a character. With an extensive character questionnaire, we had to answer as much as we could about him. Despite many of the details not explicitly said in the book, we found that we could fill out questions not only on appearance, but also on psychology and personal philosophy of the character merely having observed his actions, and that as readers we are all detectives searching for clues.
We also briefly got on to some of our teacher’s (novelist Alex Preston) rules for dialogue, which we didn’t have time to finish.
The main thing to take away from this week was to know a LOT about your characters before you go using them, and to fill out a similar questionnaire, before writing. As doing so will guide you into what they would do as you write. I like the idea and had filled out less extensive questions about my characters, but did find some things that are going to be important as I write along.
The first workshops start next week, where we’ll start to focus on each others’ work. In many ways it’ll be where the real work begins, as questions will be asked of us, and we’ll have to find the answers to them if we don’t know them already.
TERM 1 WEEK 3
CREATIVE WRITING 1
Day 1 of work-shopping materials, and I was first up. I chose a piece from the novel I’m working on that was in fairly decent shape and I didn’t suffer too much criticism. I was told to “kill a few darlings” and a few lines at the end of the scene were questioned as unnecessary.
More importantly, the lessons I learned from class this week were:
1/. Spend time on other people’s work.
I spent between 1 and 2 hours on every piece of work that was to be work-shopped: by the FIVE other students who submitted. This was a great exercise for reading things that perhaps you don’t normally read (in this instance, poetry and a historical fiction piece).
Further to this, you have to think about why something is or isn’t working, and have a reason behind it. This gets you “thinking like an author,” which is obviously what we’re supposed to do. Most importantly, I recognised that the more work I put into the other submissions, the more I’m answering questions and finding things out about my own writing. I discovered the same phenomenon when I started teaching: paradoxically, the more you help the students, the more you learn yourself.
I’m looking forward to what I can learn from this process, and the mixed minds of the group.
2/. Don’t worry about every little thing.
It’s an important one to remember for when you’re going insane: It’s your work. Writing isn’t done by committee and you’re not going to please everyone, so remember at the end of the day to do what feels right for you.
An example is in the written feedback I received (everyone gives you an annotated copy of your work). There was one particular line that had four different comments.
First, I had a “YES!” so someone really liked it. Then I had a “I think we get the picture,” so someone thought it was one line too much. Next I came across a “??” so someone didn’t understand it, and finally someone just struck out the line with no explanation, so I assume that they felt it wasn’t needed, or didn’t like it, or whatever.
The other comments I received didn’t pick out this line at all, so the best thing to do with this line is, well, whatever I bloody well want to do with it, it’s my story.
In the end, I will probably read aloud, and decide if the line “fits” in terms of sound, rhythm and character, and make a decision based on that.
3/. “Mistakes” are often just a lack of confidence.
This wasn’t aimed at anyone in particular, but Patricia was talking about the dreaded adverbs, adjectives and dialogue tags. She explained that a dialogue tag which is anything other than he/she says/said often shows that the dialogue itself was not strong enough. Likewise adverbs often tell us that our verbs are not strong enough.
I knew this already, but the idea of it being a lack of confidence was new to me: Be more confident, see if people get it.
(UPDATE: Check out Clear by Nicola Barker for a satirical Masterclass in art, writing, and especially dialogue tags. *cheesy grin*).
Place is important. My book is supposed to be set in the USA, but it doesn’t have anything making this explicit, and I’ve been questioned on why there, what is it about this particular place that makes it a requirement for the story? I know the answer, but maybe the answer isn’t good enough.
We had to read a couple of poems this week as well as a prose piece written by a poet. It was very interesting to see how poetically minded people work with language. I felt inarticulate in comparison, but the look into another world was valuable, and something that I need to study further. (Back again to the advice of reading widely).
Yet again I was first up for work-shopping. The piece I handed in was very raw; I only wrote it a couple weeks ago and all I did before submitting was try to change all the tense to present (I had slipped into past quite a bit), and I added a colour or two to a very drab and grey story (it’s supposed to be, but you can’t just “read grey” the whole way through something).
I also put in a couple of inadequate lines, only one of which was mentioned, which I found interesting, because I thought one of them was very cheesy, but no one seemed to notice.
The main things I took from this class were:
My story was supposed to be in third person, but the first person was trying to come through, and I ended up with something that had third person, close third, and even slips into first. Sometimes this is because the *true voice* of the piece is trying to come through. Sometimes it’s just bad writing…oops!
2/. I DON’T GET IT!
Lots more criticism this afternoon. People said that the piece was “too safe” or “too predictable,” (I was trying to use an ironic sense of safeness and predictability, so this was all very ironic in itself). People also had quite different ideas about what I was trying to do. This is fine, since everyone can only approach a story from their own vantage point, however, I don’t think many understood what I was trying to say with this story, so that obviously needs to be looked at.
To come back to confidence; I had one dialogue tag that was not “says/said.” Having a toothless old man, I added “sch” to his “s” sounds, in an attempt to emulate what toothlessness might sound like. After one of his lines, I used “slavered” or “slobbered” or something similar, which could be taken as a lack of confidence in whether or not people would “get” the sound that I was going for with my “sch.”
Note to anyone bringing something similar to a writing class: Just put “said” and see if they get it. If they don’t you can work on the dialogue later. You’re just not going to get away with it, even if Stephen King says in On Writing that now and again he has these indulgences. 😉
YOU CAN’T HANDLE THE TRUTH!
Aside from the workshop, Alex went through some stuff that he has found useful in his own practice. This was all taken from Hemingway, WG Sebald and Gordon Lisch (recent article on Lish) and expanded on from his own experience. Plenty of food for thought, and the only thing I took issue to was the “suffering artist” idea that is a cliché in itself by now.
But I had to think about it more deeply. Alex has published and submitted three literary novels and is on his fourth, was educated at private school before moving on to Oxford University, and recently submitted his PhD. Yet his vantage point is very similar to Geoff Thompson’s, a self-educated man from working class Coventry, who, until his thirties, swept the floor of factories, had hundreds of fights as a bouncer on nightclub doors and who (generally) writes in “an informal, authentic vernacular.” (Which is how Shakespeare and Chaucer’s writing are described by Scarlett Thomas).
Despite the differences in background, the opinions of Geoff and Alex are almost identical, if expressed in slightly different ways. Geoff’s own art has all come back (in one way or another) to the sexual abuse he suffered as a child. He is on a quest for truth, to “hunt out his shadows,” though despite all the darkness in his work it is underscored with hope and positivity.
In the same book she says that a “literary” piece of writing will get a higher grade than a “genre” piece of writing on writing courses here at Kent. She explains that “commercial, generic forms…are safe, predictable, quick and easy.” However, I’ve read “literary” work without a hint of truth, and feel that if a commercial author is honest about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it (and trying their best), then that honesty is worth more than lyrical, “literary” work where someone is simply showing off what they can do with language that might be clever, but is empty of honesty, truth, and therefore, any real voice.
Maybe I am chasing shadows in my work, maybe I’m trying to capture other peoples’. But no matter, we all have our own unique view and perspective on the world and I don’t see anything wrong with following that, as long as you are doing so honestly, and truthfully confronting what it puts in front of you.
And while I’m still processing all of this, I have no intention of “f**king up my life to make my art perfect” in any way, shape or form.
I’ll stick to saying what I can say honestly, and try to “Make good art.”
TERM 1 WEEK 4
CREATIVE WRITING 1
This week we critiqued three fiction pieces (sci-fi, crime, quirky) and a poet. It’s crystal clear now that analysing the material of others is analysing your own writing: What works and doesn’t work for you, and why.
The notes I took this week were quite eclectic:
POV notes this week are from the perspective of poetry. One poem was written in second person perspective, “you do this, you do that,” and I found that this gives an immediate connection to the poem, as you visualise yourself doing or feeling what is written. Not something that’ll come up in my prose anytime soon, but definitely something worth remembering.
Another interesting comment here was when Patricia said that sometimes, we write ourselves into the correct tense. I wondered if that’s what I did with my short story from a couple of weeks ago. Why choose one POV over another? It’s becoming an interesting aspect to think about.
I read all my work out loud and it has to “sound” right. It’s a rhythm, and you know if a word fits or not, but at the same time, you could highlight or give an inflection to a sentence or, again, dialogue, by using a lot of words with similar (or disjointed) sounds. The example from this week were words with lots of /k/ sounds (coin) and lots of /I/ sounds (ship). It was interesting to note how this can affect the quality, or inflection of a sentence.
As for lists, last week one of the girls, a poet, was writing prose and used a list (that I loved) to describe some *housing estate ruffians* (for you American readers who don’t know what a *CHAV* is). Anyhoo, she used an awesome list, and listing was highlighted as a poetry technique. Of course, I’m seeing it all through the fiction that I’m reading at the moment, and it’s done with varying degrees of success. To give a snapshot of the character by listing a few items in their handbag or their desk drawer – nice! To give a glimpse at some chavs on a street corner, awesomesauce. But to list how clever you are or as an expose of all the research that you have done for your novel…kinda insane-crazy.
Over in Fiction 1 we were tasked with reading Half of a Yellow Sun, by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, which is pretty mind-blowing in scope and an education for those who don’t know much about Nigeria’s history (like me). It’s a heartbreaking multi-perspective novel about the war in Nigeria in the late 1960s, when part of the country attempted to create a new nation state – Biafra. The book is about wealth and self, the question of identity seen from a young servant, an affluent African woman and an English writer. What does it mean to be Igbo? To be Nigerian? To be African or English? What do the boundaries found on maps or the constrictions of politics actually mean when everything is taken away from us?
The first exercise we did was to create an “elevator pitch,” or a blurb for the novel, and I sneakily patch-worked some of the words and phrases that were used in class in the above paragraph. So now you have an idea of what we came up with. We also had to think of a seed word, a single word that we would boil the novel down to. A few people said “identity” and “loss” for this particular piece.
In Monkeys with Typerwriters (her guide to writing), Scarlett Thomas suggests having a Narrative question, thematic question and a seed word for your work. These can help you hold things in place and keep a focus on what you’re trying to achieve. And trying to find what these things might be in what you’re reading at the moment is an interesting exercise is seeing how novels are put together.
After this exercise, we discussed the book, had some interesting revelations about the author and publisher (i.e. how to give a 27 year-old born 10 years after this war ended the authority to write about it). The notes that I took were as follows:
KNOW THE SPECIFICS OF YOUR WORLD
Know the languages, the assumptions, the norms, the rules. This is why a lot of people say to “write what you know,” as these things are automatically in place. Otherwise, you need to research a lot!
DON’T BE A TOURIST: LIVE THERE
You can’t give details that a tourist would give, you need to go deeper. At the same time you can’t just list the specifics of your research to prove that you have done it (even if you are a 27 year-old trying to prove that you have the authority to write about a war you did not live through). It just doesn’t ring true for the reader.
But by combining these two ideas, you can find connections to the world you want to inhabit in what you do and what you know, and people will connect with the truth of that….or that is what I scribbled in my notes at least!
TERM 1 WEEK 5
There isn’t much to catch up on this week, as CREATIVE WRITING 1 had a reading week. (FICTION 1 will have a reading week next week). So…
In class this week we workshopped two pieces, and I got a telling off for *not giving negative comments* (while someone who said that “they didn’t enjoy it” was praised for their honesty).
Now, I understand that Alex is trying to show people that it’s okay (and potentially even more useful) to point out what is not working with something than to point out what someone is doing well.
However, while I am all for hearing about the flaws in my work (and have had my share of negative feedback, which I accept and welcome), the idea that negative comments are more useful than positive comments is just nonsense. It obviously all depends on the quality of the comment.
If someone says “I didn’t like it,” while someone else gives a positive comment explaining what they enjoyed about the work, in regards to character and style – then which piece of feedback is more useful? The four words that say nothing? Or knowing what you’re doing well so that you can do more of it?
Likewise, if I say “I liked it,” giving no indication as to what it was that I liked, but another person gives some concrete evidence for what they didn’t like, then I’m sure we’d all agree that the negative comment in this case is the more useful of the two.
I doubt I can explain any further, other than to say that my fear of pushing for negative comments is that it could get out of control. What has happened a couple of times is, for example, some grammar nitpicking. Now, that’s great if it’s relevant to a voice that you’re trying to create, or a dialect, but a total waste of workshop time when it’s quick fix, typo kind of stuff that people circle in the pages they hand you after anyway. I’d much rather hear something positive and useful about plot, character development, structure, style, etc, than what is essentially proofreading in workshop time.
Yet again, I find myself in two minds about the issue (as I did when I spoke about being “tortured” in order to write – see WEEK 3). Yet again, I feel like me and Alex are on the same page, but just have different ideas about how to explain that, or, at least, different ways of how we might elicit this idea from a group of people.
At the end of the day, he obviously wants us to be reading the workshop pieces as writers, and pushing ourselves to find the stuff that we could be doing better, so that we can find it for ourselves more and more easily. And all of this comes down to his desire to point us in the right direction as authors.
So here I am again, finding myself in agreement though I disagree with the way it has been articulated or executed.
First real post for you guys on the PERILS OF WORKSHOPPING!
TERM 1 WEEKS 6 + 7
Sorry to have disappeared last week. It was reading week at university, or rather “writing week” for us Creative Writing students, so I had no classes to let you know about. I did have a tutorial with one of my teachers, and during this I really began to see how big a job writing a novel is. It appears that the 134 pages I have written thus far have basically been character and plot development, and need major reworking and/or just cutting from the book. YAY!
On the upside, I feel like I’m still interested in what I’m doing, have a lot of things to be going on with, and actually want to get going through it, so it is all good.
This week it was back to business as usual. I had a piece workshopped in
CREATIVE WRITING 1
But to be honest, I don’t have much to say. I got some really good notes about what people are thinking about the book, as they have seen quite a bit of it by now, and I got lots of food for thought about how I could exploit what I have so far.
Interesting notes included:
1/. Congruence of character. If something feels out of place for a character (I had a character swearing) then it will jar your reader.
2/. Passive voice. One of the other pieces slipped into passive a couple of times, and we talked about how using the passive can really slow a piece down, or rather, “flatten” it. Passive is mostly used for reporting, so if using it as a technique to do this, or to “flatten” or slow something then that is fine. However, Patricia said to be careful not to “use it like a tense” because of the effect that it can have, and to really know where you are using it and why.
3/. Don’t use “suddenly.” In general, you don’t need it.
In Fiction 1 this week we had to read Herta Muller‘s The Passport. A tough read despite only being around 90 pages long. The book is deceptively simplistic, cutting adjectives, long sentences, and commas. But it uses some weird and interesting images, and has some quite startling passages. I can’t say that I liked or disliked it. I enjoyed letting the feeling of it, or the atmosphere it created take hold of me, but other times it literally sent me to sleep, or drove me a bit mental trying to get through it. Having said that, it is certainly an interesting read and it provided a fair bit of discussion.
We were told to think about reading it as poetry, and a poet recently said to me that she enjoys when her poetry is a challenge for those who read it: “It’s their job to figure it out for themselves. To look up the words if they don’t know them and to come to their own understanding.”
Since we also spoke about symbols in the class, my friend’s description of her poetry was an apt way of viewing Muller’s book. We should perhaps use this book to remember a certain time and place, or the events that happened. Furthermore, we have to look at her repetition of things (thus turning them into symbols) and figure out what they mean to us.
Random notes from class:
Never use “nice” or “almost” or “probably” – they are weak. (Or use them, but know why).
Using words like “may be,” “might be,” “just,” etc are also weak. Say “she is” or “they are” or whatever, be sure.
Pay attention to what your own recurring symbols and motifs/images are in your work. Figure out why you use them or where they came from…
And that is us caught up on what has happened in class! Till next week:
TERM 1 WEEK 8
So, week 8 just finished, and the semester feels like it’s coming to a close, even though there’s still a few weeks left. A friend asked some general questions about how it’s all going and since that was kind of the point of this blog, I thought that I might try to write a few things about that in the WEEK 8 post.
THE SEMESTER SO FAR
The semester is going well. I’m happy with my classes and with the programme in general. I felt a little taken aback when confronted with only four hours a week. As I’ve mentioned before, I came here because I was interested in the literary theory of Scarlett Thomas, and I’d read around online about the lectures that she has given on writing. It appears that those lectures are a thing of the past, 8 years of them distilled into her book Monkey’s with Typewriters. In many ways, that book is a Creative Writing degree in 500 pages, and if you don’t have thousands of Pounds/Dollars/Euros to drop on a MA/MFA, then I suggest paying the ten bucks that the book will set you back. There’s plenty in there to keep you going.
With none of these lectures on writing existing anymore (not on the MA anyhow), both of my classes this term are essentially workshop based, and that’s a kinda risky thing to spend so much money on. Literally thousands of pounds and a year of your life for two workshops a week with strangers, and no idea of their ability to push your work forward.
Then there are the teachers: Does writing a novel mean you can teach how to do that? Obviously it doesn’t, so that was a risk too.
Despite these reservations, I feel good about how things have worked out so far. The groups and teachers that I’ve ended up with are very different, and have different approaches, so this gives alternative angles and viewpoints on the work. Also, everyone in the classes has something to teach you, you just need to figure out their particular specialties and take what you can form their insights.
One class sees your work looked at 5 times (3 workshops and 2 tutorials) and in the other you have one workshop and another chance to send the teacher work. It maybe doesn’t sound like a lot, but that’s 7 times in 12 weeks, not to mention an 8,000 word portfolio at the end of each module as the examination. So actually it’s quite a lot of writing that gets looked at.
IT IS ONLY WHAT YOU MAKE OF IT
On top of this, as you may have guessed, you only get out what you put in.
RESOURCES: The teachers are there to be emailed and asked questions, they have office hours where you can go in and discuss your work. There are readings every week where you can go and listen to authors talk about their work and their processes. A library full of books and poetry at your disposal. Theatre, lectures and events around campus. All of which is there to be mined for your growth as a writer.
COST: In terms of the cost for only four hours a week, I have literally paid to have a focussed year on my writing. This course could have been done part-time and by distance, but I knew that I wouldn’t have the focus needed on my work to get to where I wanted to be. I needed to do it full-time, and I see the cost as an investment in myself and my writing. Because I have chosen to do this, I intend to get as much as I can from the experience.
READING: There are also the books we read every week and the discussions we have about them. Again, you only get out what you put into this. Each week, I’ve focussed on what we have been learning, or has been raised in terms of craft. Then I attempt to see how the authors on our reading lists have approached this.
WORKSHOPS: Perhaps the most important thing of all has been the workshops. Reading and annotating the work of others to try and find what is working well and what is not working so well might be considered a tedious process for some people. But for me it is one of the things that has been the most useful. I think about what I would do if it was my own work, and I find issues in these pieces that I can’t see in my own (because I’m too close to my own work). So the distance from these works by NOT being the author of them is actually important, and the stream of fresh words is a constant flow of opportunities to learn, improve and (hopefully) help others. [NB: I have a complete 360 on workshopping in term 2! Read on to find out why! ;-)]
POETRY: I’ve been placed in a class with a lot of poets, and actually, this has been eye opening in terms of what can be done with the written word. I’ve already used a few of the techniques in my writing, and in many ways it’s added a playfulness and been quite inspiring. If what I use doesn’t work, all I have to do is erase it, and it’s fun to try out some of these new and (for me) weird techniques.
JOB: I have a part-time job which is actually taking up a lot of my reading/writing time, but I need it and I am grateful for the opportunity. I’m teaching English, which has helped my writing so much these last years. I’ve learned a lot about grammar (even though I’m still terrible at it) and I’ve seen the power of words, how the chunks of language we memorise as youngsters can shape us (and our personalities as foreign language learners!), and, most of all, how we all need stories.
OPINION AFTER TWO MONTHS?
In short, I feel like I’m in the right place. This may be more down to the process I have decided to go through and this possibly could have happened wherever I chose to go.
If you are reading this thinking “I could use that money to live in South-East Asia for a year (or three) and write on a beach, I could go on a writing course, join a free (or cheap) workshop, or do all of this stuff he’s doing online, then you’re right. But I needed to go to the source. For me the fastest way to improve at something is to marinade in it. If you want to be an actor it’s best to move where there are theatres and opportunities. If you want to be a Wall Street Broker there’s not much point living in a yurt in Mongolia. If you you want to be a world surfing champion then weekend trips to the beach versus living there full-time, taking classes, practicing, hanging out with like-minded people that you see, talk to, interact and become friends with – that’s the fastest route to improvement. Needed? No. But helpful? Definitely.
And that is what I’m doing. I am around teachers who are all published authors. This shows me that it’s possible. I am around other writers with common goals. I have extra time and space in my days to push forward with my project. And all of this, really, is what I came here for.
Let’s hope it keeps going as it’s started…
TERM 1 WEEK 9
Life is moving so fast now in the lead up to the Christmas break. I hope that there are some NaNo winners among us.
I had meetings with both Patricia and Alex last week (my tutors, in case you haven’t been paying attention) and I was getting picked at about sentence level stuff.
So, for example, in one scene my character was really at crisis point (it was basically the climax of my story) and he was registering things in too much detail. Of course, being told through first person perspective, there is no way that those tiny details would be making it onto his radar, so I need to look more into feeling and large sweeping strokes of detail as opposed to minute observation. So that’s one thing that I need to sort out.
Meanwhile, in the piece I sent to Alex, a story told in close third person, those things are important, and there was not enough detail to let us know the era in which the story is supposed to be set. So now I need to go and do a ton of research which needs to be seamlessly sewn into the piece…woohoo!
I was also given lots more reading ideas: Ah books, how I wish I could read you all…
A couple of technical details that we looked at that might be of interest.
Some pieces were really using this tense a lot where past simple (or whatever you call it where you come from) would have been fine.
Where one use of “had” at the start of the paragraph and then going into past simple from there on would have been sufficient. It’s not something that I’ve paid close attention to before, and I was then pulled up on this exact point in the story that I gave to Alex. So have a look at what you’re writing and see what you’re doing with past tense!
If you haven’t heard of this before, it’s basically the thing that puts restrictions/boundaries on the characters. So, for example, it would be the island in Lord of the Flies. Although I didn’t know that it was called this, this is a technique I like to do with short stories and writing exercises.
I once heard Neil Gaiman say that restrictions are great for writers, because they give you so much “less” (so to speak) to work with, and this helps to drive the story. “The Crucible” obviously takes this to a whole other level, but I think that we probably have all used it in one way or another in something that we’ve written. A useful one to think about.
The Power of “WHAT IF?”
So “WHAT IF?” was suggested as an exercise for getting some story ideas. We were thinking about it from the Sci-Fi/Alternative History point of view, as we had just read Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro. So we did a quick round of coming up with some what ifs that could make for cool stories. Give it a go!
PLOT AND EDITING
We also did some stuff on plot and editing, but it is more extensive, so I am working on a separate post for that. I hope to get that up sometime this week. Keep your eyes peeled.
Tomorrow is the second last week of term. We technically have a “writing week” the week after, so uni is not “finished,” but there are only two weeks of classes left. These will mostly be workshop based, though our very last class will be in “The Shakespeare” having a *ginger ale* and a chat about The Line of Beauty by Alan Hollinghurst. Not a bad way to finish the term!
I will be heading home for the festives and doubt I’ll get much done, but with two 8,000 word projects due on January 17th, I need to make use of that writing week.
I hope that everyone is doing some good writing (or having a well deserved rest if you’re a NaNo winner).
And as promised, here’s the stuff on PLOT and EDITING:
The following is my scribbled notes from an info dump on plot and editing. I think my book goes through some of these, so if you found the site after reading that you will have heard some of this already. I’m sure others have come across much of this elsewhere too, but I’m going to scribble it all down anyway, as I think that it’s good to have lots to choose from and different things to go into when you get stuck with plotting, so here goes:
PLOT: A List
1/. PLOT = TENSION – NARRATIVE THRUST – ENERGY – CHARACTER
2/. Make the protagonist want something early, and make this in conflict with what the antagonist wants (who or whatever the antagonist may be).
3/. ENERGY is important, conflict and dialogue can inject energy.
4/. Too much description or back story will hinder progress, the writing needs to move the story on.
5/. Interrogate your plot: Do the scenes you write progress the novel? Do they lead to the next scene?
6/. If a scene is physical, storyboard or walk it through. Use the visual aspects to help you write the scene.
7/. Move from active to meditative scenes.
8/. Flashback is an impediment to story.
9/. The MIDDLE is notoriously difficult: cut the middle fiercely: Find other ways of telling that story (radio broadcasts, newspaper headlines/clippings, letters, journals, etc).
10/. Amp up the tension in the difficult middle.
11/. Don’t start at the beginning of the story, begin at a moment of crisis.
12/. Character is plot. Plot is character. ~ Hemingway?
Many of you may know about Christopher Booker’s The Seven Basic Plots. Scarlett Thomas goes for 8 in her Monkeys with Typewriters. These can be a great place to go and find your story, especially when working on the difficult middle (that’s me right now!) While these things are there, we were told to think about incorporating, going against, subverting-twisting-altering the plots found in these books when writing our stories.
We also went through Christopher Vogler‘s ideas from his The Writer’s Journey stuff, which comes from work done by Propp and Campbell last century. You can find deeper analysis of these in my book, in Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, or in Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Next we spoke about Story by Robert McKee. A book on screenwriting that can be read as a guide to novel writing. McKee breaks screenplays down into BEAT – SCENE – SEQUENCE – ACTS, which could be mirrored in novel writing in the same way. Coming from a theatre background, I don’t find this terminology hard to translate, but if it helps you could think about BEATS as moments, SCENES as parts within chapters, SEQUENCE as the chapters and ACTS as sections of the book (several chapters together).
Finally we spoke about Ronald B. Tobius, who wrote 20 Master Plots: And How to Build Them.
That’s a lot of reading, I personally haven’t read McKee or Tobius yet, and have so far only read summaries of Propp’s work. I have read Campbell, Vogler and Thomas’s books, and I found them helpful. But as I say in my own book, I look to these other places when I’m stuck, and I need Ideas to get out of whatever plot hole I have dug myself into.
EDITING: A List
Here is a list of thoughts, questions and ideas that Alex put forward on Editing:
1/. If you change something small in the book, how does the effect ripple throughout?
2/. Question your adjectives, adverbs and verbs.
3/. Foreshadow plot points with hints.
4/. Question the length of your scenes. Is there too much background information?
5/. Pause for contemplation – readers need a break.
6/. Question your transitions.
7/. Cut one sentence from each page/paragraph. Go back and put one sentence back in the next day.
8/. Add one detail to each of your characters.
9/. CUT anything that doesn’t need to be there. Cut sentences from pages and paragraphs, and cut words from sentences. In general, nothing should be superfluous. Question every word.
10/. CUT, CUT, CUT. (Especially your asides and tangents).
TERM 1 WEEKS 10 + 11
TERM 1 – OVER AND OUT
It’s all over!
The first term on the Creative Writing Master’s at the university of Kent 2013 is done and (not quite) dusted.
I’ve had 18,000 words workshopped or tutorialled (new verbs?), and I have 9 or 10 copies of each workshopped version with comments from classmates and tutors. This week is technically a “writing week” (reading week), so I plan to go through these before I go home for Christmas, as then I plan mostly on eating and sleeping.
I can’t wait to read something for pleasure! Bring me a book, Santa!
I had my work workshopped for the third and final time this week. And among my notes were these little nuggets:
ARTICULATION vs EMOTIONAL EXPERIENCE
Would your character really be able to describe certain points of the book in such detail if they were really going through the situations they are finding themselves in (points of major emotional crisis).
There were some interesting notes on description in this class, including regular soundbites like:
“Only put details in that are needed and add to the story.”
“Don’t have wasted details.”
“Kill your darlings.”
However, one stood out above the others – “sometimes description is a ‘note to self.'” Which means that you need to know it (or it is useful to know it) as a writer, but your readers don’t need that. This brought us to the idea of “significant description,” that is to say, make sure that what you describe is significant.
I asked a question about using the same word on multiple occasions. There are words that I have used multiple times, and on occasion I try to change these to vary the language. I had been told off for doing this in one class, because I had called a train a “locomotive” and was told just to call it what it is. On the other hand, someone picked up that I had used one word 4 times in the space of a few lines, and I too had noticed it. Originally I tried to vary the language, but then I thought back to “calling a train a train” and so I changed it back to the common word. So I asked: “When should we vary language and when should we just use the most common word.”
The answer was that we should stick to one word when it is an important word in the story (like train is in one chapter, it is all about a train journey), but if it’s no big deal, just an item that you can change for language variation, then to change it to something else. The theory being that we notice patterns naturally, and we will pick up if a word has been used many times and look for the value or symbol or importance to it.
I hope that makes some sense to someone, I’m not sure I explained very well! :-/
In Alex’s class we were workshopping two students. Both of whom interestingly were writing what could be called autobiographical fiction, or narrative non-fiction. Either way a mix of the real and the embellished. According to Alex this is a trend at the moment, and something that may continue to grow in the future. Just don’t go and do what A Million Little Pieces author James Frey did and sell your rejected novel as memoir, using Oprah Winfrey to make you a millionaire, and then get caught out for being a liar. That’s not cool, though, arguably, lack of honesty and integrity says nothing about his writing ability, and apparently he’s pretty good…though he’s been caught up in other not too cool projects.
Anyhoo, an interesting point in this is, for example, using real names or real people too closely in your work, as this can actually hinder you by making everything too close to the bone. You may feel like you’re revealing too much, or that you don’t want to tempt fate with certain situations, or to sully the names of those you’re writing about. Even the most fantastical of fiction has plenty elements of reality and the real world. Albert Camus famously said: “Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.” and after all, with the ability to say things how you wish to say them, the mask of fiction does allow you to put forward the truth as you view it.
Something else that I have been thinking about was a writing teacher I had a long time ago (10 years ago) while a drama student in New York in my early twenties. A tall, affable man called Larry Alton. Larry once said that people who can articulate themselves well when speaking probably weren’t meant to be writers. “If I could talk like he can, there’d be no reason to be a writer,” he said about someone or other with a silver tongue.
I agree with Larry’s idea, and not just cause I’m terrible at articulating myself.
I guess what I’ve really been thinking about lately is “Why do I want to write?”
I know my answer well and hope that you know yours…but if you asked me in the street, I’d probably have to go and write it out first.
and Happy Writing!
TERM 2 WEEK 1
After what seems like forever, we finally went back to university this week. This term I have two new author-teachers and a slightly different set up with the classes. The classes are FICTION 2, with David Flusfeder, and WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT with Scarlett Thomas.
This term looks like this:
Week 13: Beginnings
Week 14: Narrator and point-of-view (REVOLUTIONARY ROAD, Richard Yates)
Week 15: Characters (LONDONSTANI, Guatam Malkani)
Week 16: Dialogue
Week 17: Plot
Week 18: WRITING WEEK
Week 19: Structure & Planning (SLAUTERHOUSE FIVE, Kurt Vonnegut)
Week 20: ‘The Writer’s voice’ (LIGHTNING RODS, Helen DeWitt)
Week 21: Description (A BOX OF MATCHES, Nicholson Baker)
Week 22: Ruthlessness (OFFSHORE, Penelope Fitzgerald)
Week 23: Revisions and Endings
Week 24: WRITING WEEK
This week, we were given a bunch of “beginnings” from various novels and short stories. Anything from a few lines to a few paragraphs. Any “giveaways” to what they might be were taken out and we had to read the excerpts and answer questions. The questions were:
1/. Four of these beginnings are murder stories: which ones?
2/. What do we know about the narrator of each? The main character? Are they the same?
3/. How would you describe the tone?
4/. What questions are being asked? What promises are made?
5/. Two were written by women: which ones?
6/. When were they written? Where?
After discussing this, and guessing, we had to rank these questions in order of importance.
So, what was all that about? Well I guess first of all to see how important a beginning can be. To see how much is given away, to see what is alluded to. We can tell a lot about a book/story by the POV alone. DISCUSS!
Next week, I’m first up for workshopping. As I (think I) said last term, the actual reading and marking of others’ work is the most useful part, as it is training you to be a better editor. I put a lot of time and effort into that last term, and I really felt the benefit of it. It matters that it’s someone else’s work, as it’s harder to get separation and see the issues in your own. Of course, this doesn’t make you right when you comment on it, it just gives you the opportunity to think about what you would do differently, if anything at all. Let’s see how this continues with a new group.
Interestingly, David said the same thing in class. Even going as far to say that the workshop itself doesn’t really matter, at least, not nearly as much as the process of reading and thinking about it from the perspective of an author. Sometimes people will give good advice, sometimes they will give terrible advice, sometimes the comments won’t be that helpful all. But then there is also the benefit of sharing, you need to share to to get some fresh eyes on your work sometimes.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT
This is a module where we’ll be writing narrative non-fiction, checking out the environment in terms of urban/rural, the wild, putting the background into the foreground, and using techniques such as reportage, “psychogeography”, travel writing and nature-writing. We have to choose something “wild” to study, will go on a ramble and also do one class on the train to London.
Only the first five weeks have been opened for viewing so far, they look like this:
Week 13: Home
Week 14: Gardens
Week 15: Countryside
Week 16: The near wild
Week 17: WRITING WEEK
After this writing week we’ll start doing workshops/presentations on what we’ve chosen to study. Every week we’re encouraged to write 500 words on the week’s subject. At the end of the term, we hand in 8 X 500 words and a 4,000 word piece on a landscape that we have chosen to study. In FICTION 2, it’s another 8,000 word chunk of prose.
Our (essential) reading list includes:
Kathleen Jamie, Findings (Sort Of Books, 2005)
Robert MacFarlane, The Wild Places (Granta, 2008)
Granta 102 The New Nature Writing
Jenny Diski, Stranger on a Train (Virago, 2004)
Richard Mabey, Nature Cure (Vintage, 2008)
Michael Symmons Roberts and Paul Farley, Edgelands (Vintage, 2012)
In this week’s class, we discussed sections we had read from FINDINGS and NATURE CURE (from the list above) as well as THE APARTMENT by Georges Perec. Although it’s pretty weird to be writing non-fiction (says the dude writing about his MA) it’ll be an interesting way to learn more about making the environment part of the writing, looking at different ways to present information, description, depth and bringing all this back into our fiction. Also, is there even a difference between fiction and non-fiction? As has been said many times before, fiction is often a better vehicle to tell the truth, and so much non-fiction these days is presented in a skewed, warped version, or “artistic license” is taken to make the telling more entertaining, resulting in fiction anyway.
After discussing the reading, and then talking about the various trips we would be going on and how the module is going to work, we also had to think of some wild (living or having once lived) things that we might want to study. Something nearby we can go and look at.
Finally, we drew pictures of our own “personal landscape” and the things that surround it. Geographically or randomly and could include any wild things, choosing something from the page to look into in more depth. (Sounds weird, but it was only 5 minutes). After explaining our art skills to a partner, we mosey’d on home.
And that, was TERM 2, WEEK 1.
I’m off to read Revolutionary Road! 🙂
TERM 2 WEEK 2
In Fiction 2 this week we discussed Revolutionary Road. This was supposedly meant to be looking at the book from the perspective of how characters are developed, but some people got a bit carried away explaining what they liked or didn’t like, or what they thought about the book and its themes.
However, from the character perspective it’s an interesting one to check out. First of all, Yates uses a non-standard POV (in that he doesn’t exactly stick to one or one character). The book starts using third person plural (they) which gives us a kind of zooming in effect on the set up, then we have a very close third person perspective on our main character – Frank. Yates also flits into the thoughts of Frank’s wife, April. In the second part of the book, we get a multiple perspective from the points of view of the characters that Frank and April interact with in part I, and these (but mostly Frank) are revisited in part III.
So…in general you *don’t do this!*, and trying to go inside the heads of multiple characters can be problematic, particularly in a first person POV. (In a first person POV it can be hard to give each character a distinct voice). In the case of this book, there was the chance of alienating the reader through dropping the perspective that we get used to in part I and going to that of other people. Making these distinct, keeping them focussed on the narrative drive of the novel, of pushing it along, isn’t easy.
This is the reason, we were told, that this book was chosen for our class. From the character perspective, it does something that, in general, wouldn’t be advised. So it’s down to us to look into how this was done, and discover something from that. So, you know, feel free to try that out! 🙂
Okay, so other things Revolutionary Road uses to build character – Backstories/Retrospection (often sense memory – a sound or image triggers a memory), it also uses stereotypes (even caricatures) so we can build our own image from those types that we “already know” (the “insane/loony”, the “nosy neighbour” etc.).
OTHER ASPECTS DISCUSSED:
*Third person can be used for giving information that can’t be given with first person (obviously this works both ways).
*Can be used to control the release of information.
*Makes it easier to kill characters (if you kill your first person narrator then how do you continue narrating unless they are doing it from beyond the grave or whatever).
*The above points are why most thrillers/spy novels tend to be in third person.
VALUABLE TAKEAWAY FROM THIS CLASS:
1/. Who the narrator is and how they tell the story are possibly the two most important decisions you are going to make. Get those right and you will get away with (almost) anything.
2/. If you are ever writing a story and it doesn’t feel right, then try shifting between various POVs.
My work was also workshopped this week, and got some sweet criticisms! Basically, I’d given a scene that my main character wasn’t the centre of. Seeing as this is an “I-novel” or a first person POV, then it was problematic for some people to get along with it (i.e. not following the main character per se, despite it being his observations).
I got a note about strengthening the “voice” of the character, which I don’t think I need to do, I just think this particular event needs cut, or pared down to something where my character is at the centre of it.
This was a very useful note though, as I’ve been forcing out “transitions” and descriptions of the world that my characters inhabit. And, of course, since this is first person POV, my character isn’t going to describe in detail the things that he sees every day of his life, so when this happens it buggers up the authenticity. On the upside, much of these things are events that I can put him “inside”, so I can still rework this stuff for description and so on.
However, I need to do some research on “I-novels” and figure out how authors handle this POV. Interestingly, last term we read only one novel from the first person perspective, and I’m not sure if we have any coming up. Fortunately, something I planned (and am finally now going to take the time to do after this piece of criticism) is re-read some of my favourite books and see how it’s done. Yup, three of my favourite books are in front of me, and they are all first person POV.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
This week we began, as we are going to each week, by discussing the texts that we’d been given to read. They were all about gardening. One was about growing opium, another was about illegal and “geurilla” (or “pirate”) gardening, and then there was a section of The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift. We then went outside to plant, as well as to try and find seeds, and also had to get inspired by nature enough to write a decent sentence.
When we returned to class, we displayed our findings, shared our sentences, and compared how gardening and writing are similar (the comparisons are endless). After writing 500 words about “home” last week, this week we have to do the same about “gardens”, to be uploaded to our online forum and commented on by next week.
Below is a picture that I took of a tree and the sentence that I wrote to go with it:
And that’s it.
I went home with wet feet, muddy shoes and big ideas.
TERM 2 WEEKS 3 + 4
I’m going to cram the last two weeks together here, because I didn’t have the classes that I expected to (there was a strike in week three and I missed class in week 4, though I still have some things to talk about regarding that week).
Okay, so first up, Fiction 2 was cancelled in week 3 because of a strike, but we still had Writing and the Environment.
It was a good class. Namely because we played around a bit. First up, we discussed the readings, which at this point had to correspond to “The Countryside”. They were:
Classic Combo by David Heatly, which can be found in Granta 102
Fantastic Mr Fox by Tim Adams, which comes from Granta 90
An excerpt from Roger Deakin‘s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm (pg 68-98)
The penultimate chapter of Kathleen Jamie‘s Findings (“Sabbath”)
After this, we had to come up with pitches for Channel 4 and Radio 4. Both had to be related to the countryside, but not necessarily to the readings. So, who would the potential listeners be? How could we captivate them? How could we find the drama or a hook?
Turns out, that when it comes down to it, whether it be the highbrow of Radio 4, or a lowbrow reality TV show on in the middle of the night, the elements remain the same.
Further, looking at the pieces in Granta (highbrow literary fare) we came to the conclusion that highbrow doesn’t have to be any less fun (just as “lowbrow” doesn’t have to mean any less literary). So this can be transferred onto the idea of “literary” or “mainstream” fiction (and thus, genre…right? 😉
Next, we played with words. We took the classic “make up random sentences” exercise, where you compile lists of nouns, verbs and adjectives, and you put them together in ways that you wouldn’t normally put them together. (Our words had to all somehow relate to the countryside). Next we had to take the words and use them in different ways, so we had to turn nouns into adverbs (the major exception to the “no adverbs” rule), made nouns into verbs, and so on and so on, making more sentences with our warped words. Which was a lot of fun.
After a short lunch break, we went through how to source, guess at, find and categorise planty stuff, and how that could be useful in our writing (finding obscure facts or interesting tidbits etc). And that was it!
(I missed class in week 4, which I’m upset about, and have yet to find a classmate to get the lowdown on what happened).
Okay, so I also missed this class this week, but I got the lowdown, and did the reading for it, so I can give you a clue about what was supposed to be going on.
The book is written in a London “Rudeboy” lingo that mixes various Asian words into the English along with cultural references, text speak, Gangsta rap and at one point a bit of Gary Barlow (one can never argue with an opportunity for a “Take That” classic in one’s work).
Anyhoo, here we were meant to be looking at characterisation.
So, this is a freakin’ super book choice to look at characterisation. Here’s why – the book is full of stereotypes, the language is rather unique, some characters are two-dimentional, some are quite well rounded despite not being in it much at all, and there’s meant to be a surprise “twist” ending (though it’s it’s pretty clear chapter one if you’re an attentive reader, and I was kinda annoyed that *that* was supposed to be the twist).
Actually, I was a little upset at the end of the book because I just felt like there was a promise of something more, and it wasn’t delivered. Some critics slated the book, and Malkani responds to many of these things on his website here. If what he says is the truth (i.e. not just responses to criticism), then it definitely builds a very interesting perspective on the study of character.
Some characters were slated as two-dimentional – Malkani says this was done on purpose to show that the “Rudeboy” identity is generic and two-dimentional in itself (thus an awesome reason for it to be this way). Another criticism was aimed at the villain of the book, which takes us into a pretty contrived storyline. Malkani asserts that this was because he wanted a “clear villain” in the piece, one who was also a fake, so he had to be cartoonish and over-the-top. He also states that he wanted to have a storyline that was captivating enough to get what he calls the “Playstation generation” reading books (so again, fair enough).
He responds to questions about the twist and it’s placement at the end, and then finishes up by saying that it’s a book for both adults and Young Adult (YA) readers (COP OUT, Gautam!).
It’s a shame. The book didn’t do as well as all involved had hoped, and perhaps if they really went for it and pitched it to schools and a YA market, he really could have got some of that “Playstation generation” reading books. In terms of schools, the book would be a controversial choice, but could be an entry point to talk about a range of things from bullying, cultural identity, racial identity, masculinity, inter-racial and inter-religious dating, materialism, booze culture, self-image, peer and parental pressure, suicide, parent-teen issues, I mean, the list is almost endless. It could be an in route to these subjects, and would perhaps, with it’s stylised lingo, pop culture references and OTT plot, be engaging enough to keep a younger generation reading (of course, now the pop culture and mobile phone references are out of date – should have struck while it was hot).
Instead, I don’t know what happened. But I didn’t hear about this book until a month ago and it was released in 2006. Check out Malkani’s website for good and bad reviews.
Now I’m getting to the point of all of this rambling. The point is: Reading this as a novel for adults, as a 32 year-old man, I felt some of the things that its critics felt. But when I read Malkani’s arguments for why these things are this way, I realised that this novel is full of potential for being misunderstood and found myself able to see something different.
However, seeing it as a YA book made the most sense to me, and from that perspective, I feel that it was such a missed opportunity to create a dialogue with the real life versions of those within and their attempts at self expression.
So, who are you writing your book for? Who is going to read it? Someone like you? Someone like your daughter? Your granny? When we start getting down to that kind of question, does it alter the way we write? Should it? Would Malkani have written a different book if he was specifically writing the book for the YA market? Was he? (he claims some characters and events were to hook a younger audience) Does it even matter? Should we just write what comes out and think about it later?
It’s an interesting one.
Okay, so something important from the lesson before I finish this post and you go and figure out who you’re writing for and if that changes anything:
Action can be the best way of really getting into character. We trust thought up to a point but if action is stronger, that’s what we’ll believe more (“seeing” is believing, as it were).
This harks back to when we looked at Disgrace, where there was very little “detail” in terms of what characters looked like and so on. Yet through the (very clear) actions of the protagonist, combined with little hints at how he sees himself, we build a very clear image of him physically, mentally and emotionally.
Hopefully everything shall be back on track next week, when I have a new computer…
TERM 2 WEEK 5
Another one of those weird weeks. It was supposed to be a reading week, but because we missed a week of Fiction 2 for the strike, we went ahead and had a class, but it was still a reading week for Writing and the Environment (because the strike didn’t affect that class). In a less complicated sentence: I will only be talking about Fiction 2 for week 5.
So, this week, a student had to give a lowdown on dialogue, and then we had to have a more open discussion about it. This was fairly interesting, because people had different ideas, but there were some of those old rules that came up, of course, which are all allowed to be broken if you do a good job, it serves the story, and you know why you’re doing it.
Here are some of the things that came up:
*Avoid exposition in dialogue, or at least be careful about it.
*Characters would only use the names of who they are talking to in certain situations. So don’t go putting their names in for clarification. Use a dialogue tag.
*Only use “said” for dialogue tags.
* Break dialogue up with some action (not action movie action, just what’s going on).
* Use punctuation. You don’t need to say “He interrupted”, you can just use a -, you don’t need to say “he trailed off” you can just trail off…
* Know your characters’ motivation for everything they say.
* Every character should want something (Kurt Vonnegut).
* Characters need different rhythms of speech.
* More can be said with a character not responding, or changing the subject.
* Don’t say things “on the nose” i.e. exactly what is in their mind and needed to move the action on. It’s like taking the easy (and unrealistic) way out.
* Using accents brings attention to itself, so if you do it, know why. Also, if you do it for one person, why not all? Be careful not to stereotype through accents.
David gave a few extra notes, including;
* Listen to people, particularly on public transport. (Headphones can be used to give the impression that you’re listening to music, and other commuters will assume that you can’t hear anything, and spout all manner of personal stuff despite being next to a stranger).
* Read everything out loud and you will feel the “truth” of it (i.e. whether or not it works). I always read everything out loud, but particularly useful for spotting if you managed to give characters different patterns of speech.
* “Economy of means usually rewards” – You can use punctuation, gestures, expressions, actions, subject changes. You don’t need to spell everything out.
Some exercises that were suggested included:
1/. Ask several different (real life) people the same questions and record their response. Note the different ways of responding to the same question.
2/. Write a dialogue between two liars. No narration to give away what each is lying about, but it has to be clear to the reader by the end of the dialogue.
3/. Write a dialogue where the people misunderstand each other. (This happens all the time in real life – people only seeing what they want to see, or hearing what they want to hear. It’s a useful way of providing conflict).
4/. Write a dialogue where two characters each want something from the other. You cannot explicitly say what it is, but again, a reader would have to understand by the end.
Other things you can do is read books where the dialogue is praised, watch well written TV shows, and I personally put whatever ability I have with dialogue down to having read a ton of plays in my acting days. Of course, things are different in a play, but when I write, I see my characters as my actors, and I am the director moving them around the set – could be a useful way for you to think about things too.
I feel that this way of looking at it makes it easy to see that you need to know your characters’ motivations, and that they should want something, and that exposition through dialogue is lame, and that a lot more can be said in the moments with no dialogue. It’s just that you don’t have actors to do that with, you need to write (or not write) that stuff. You have to be the director, the actors, the scriptwriter, the choreographer, the camera man. You are doing all of it.
That’s about it for dialogue.
We then workshopped as usual, there was no book to read this week.
I’ve been trying to read ahead to open some more space for my own reading (for research and pleasure) as the term moves on. So I’ve already consumed A Box of Matches by Nicholson Baker and Lightning Rods by Helen deWitt. Next up, Slaughterhouse five for next week’s class and then Offshore by Penelope Fitzgerald and that’s my reading done for this module. I also managed to squeeze in Paper Towns by John Green (in my bid to read some coming-of-age, first person narratives). Twas awesome.
Read along, let me know what you think of the books. A lot more American literature on this terms list, which is nice. Offshore is a booker winner, but an old one (1979) and Fitzgerald is interesting, having waited until she was 60 to start a writing career (until she had something to say? Had she been practicing all those years, but didn’t feel good enough?). Makes me think of all those sushi chefs and sword makers in Japan who aren’t allowed to do anything for 10 years. Maybe there’s something in the idea of a long apprenticeship…
TERM 2 WEEK 6
This week we looked at plot. This started with a discussion based on old skool Aristotle to ideas from recent books. I was surprised to find that I’ve read more than most about this, but then I’m probably the one who feels like I don’t really know “plot,” so it makes sense that I’ve went and spent a lot of time trying to figure it out. That is – how to do it vs. should I even bother. I was heartened when I asked David his method, and he said that it was different for everything that he’s written (he’s written 6 novels, not to mention a bunch of short stories, screenplays and an opera libretto). He says sometimes it comes easy, sometimes it’s a nightmare (paraphrasing).
What I find is that if I get lost in a plotless mess, then these books on plotting can help, it can be useful to know if you’re working inside one of the typical structures, and to see the path of that. It can help to get a few ideas on how to move forward. It can help to see that nobody else has a clear cut way of doing things because this is writing, a creative process, and there is no clear cut way.
I’m now of the mind that if you’re ever getting lost, stuck or hate what you’re doing, then taking a time out is the way to go. Leave it for a while, get fresh eyes and perspectives, write a short story or a poem. For me, it’s reading that helps the most, go back to reading stuff you love and be reminded why you’re putting yourself through the arduous process of writing in the first place. Reading will also give you ideas, you’ll see how others build their stories and get excited about them. Some other recommended activities include; getting some exercise, go to the movies, get outdoors, go on a trip (more on this later), whatever. Just recharge the batteries. You want plot advice? There it is!
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
This week we discussed the TRAIN. We had to read three pieces; “Trenitalia”, from Granta 94, the first chapter of Paul Theroux’s The Old Patagonian Express and a chapter of Jenni Diski’s Stranger on a Train. After discussing how much of themselves the authors gave away in these pieces, we also discussed the difference between fiction/non-fiction. For example, perhaps the authors did meet all of the people they describe, but not on the same journey, or at the same time.
Next, we wrote a short piece in which we had to give something of ourselves away. Some people chose an embarrassing moment, or a time when they did something they regretted. I chose a strong reaction to being stared at one day during my time living in China, when I went a little off the handle. A moment I’d have rather not revisited, but it was (surprisingly) fun to describe.
This week was a sort of introduction to how fact and fiction can be blended, as obviously people will rearrange events, or change a line they heard someone say to give it that dramatic punch or make it a better quip. This is something that we looked at in week 7 too. Our piece of writing this week had to be based on a train journey that we took, specifically with writing about it in mind. I am giving a presentation on this next week as opposed to having my writing workshopped, cause, truth be told – I’ve had enough of workshopping at the moment. (UPDATE: The turn against workshopping commences!)
TERM 2 WEEK 7
Our book for this week was Slaughterhouse 5 and we were looking at structure. Obviously, for those who have read Slaughterhouse 5, it’s not exactly typical – yet Vonnegut asserts that there are very few “shapes” (as he calls them) to stories.
So, as usual, we can see that there is more than one way to go about things.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
We discussed the readings a bit – Edgelands and an excerpt from Iain Sinclair’s London Orbital. The point was that there’s always something to write about if a) you try to look at things differently, or b) you go out and create something to write about – even if it’s a disaster, it’s something to write about. We do not need to wait for the muse to come.
After this, we had to find at least 10 different writing techniques that were being used in these pieces, which was telling about how many different ways there are to approach a subject.
Next we had to go out into “edgelands” – basically quiet parts of the university, and DO something. One group went to the library, all picked random books from quiet parts and opened them to Page 43. One group started in the same place and all walked in different directions for a period of time, one group went to try and find the infamous, hidden, fine-dining bistro on campus. My partner and I printed off a bunch of quotes and stuck them in the edgeland places – quotes about food in the vending machines, quotes about waste in toilets, quotes about loneliness in empty corridors and rooms, all of them pretty much deserted.
When we came back to class, we had to write a good first line for the narrative of what we just did. And this is the piece we have to finish for our 500 words this week.
So again, the point of the last couple of classes (I think), is that you can go out and create things to write about. And that you don’t have to tell it exactly like it happened. You can rearrange events, add the drama, etc.
I don’t know about you guys, but I could really do with a bit of old skool Tina:
TERM 2 WEEK 8
This week the topic of discussion was “voice”. The reading was Helen DeWitt’s Lightning Rods, and while a student was giving a short presentation of the book, I wrote down the questions; “what is voice?” “what is tone?” and “what is the difference?”
We threw some words out as to what made up the voice. Things like characterisation, narrator, language, theme, story, but none of them really did the trick. As it turned out, we all went into metaphorical language in order to try and explain everything. The idea of “voice” (in the writing sense and not the sound that comes out of our mouths) is an abstract one, and trying to describe something that doesn’t actually exist turns out to be quite tricky.
Furthermore, people call it different things, David Flusfeder calls it tone, Virgina Woolf calls it Rhythm and Al Alverez uses the word “voice” that most of us are familiar with. Here is what they have to say about it:
Al Alvarez, The Writer’s Voice:
“True style — which is what I mean by voice — can come in any form provided it is alive and urgent enough to take hold of the reader and make him understand that what is being said really matters.”
character: “inward quality, an indication of how you behave in the world and in how you write, and it expresses itself in your tone of voice.”
Virginia Woolf, in letter to Vita Sackville-West:
“Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words), and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it.”
OTHER USEFUL TIDBITS ABOUT WRITING
* Don’t trust the feelings of unreasonable euphoria or unreasonable self-doubt
* Build your internal BS detector and then trust it.
* Killing your darlings: The idea of getting rid of lines that you’re too pleased with comes from the very fact that you are too pleased with them. Does it need to be there? Is it drawing attention to itself?
* In many pieces of writing advice that you’re given, the opposite is usually true as well.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT
This week we began workshopping in this class too, so spent an hour doing an exercise that could be done at any moment in any writing class: BAD WRITING. We each had to choose a city (or the idea of the city) and we had to write a paragraph in groups about it. The paragraph had to be terrible. To do this, we included simple, unnecessary adverbs as well as clichés, hyperbole, cheesy, worn out adjectives and, in my groups case, a little bit of racism (a genuine soundbite one of our members had heard about Gurkhas in Nepal).
The interesting thing was, this exercise was very easy to do. It was fun, but it was scary how easily we could string together sentence after sentence of rubbish. Scarlett explained that sometimes in the flow of writing, these things will come out, because they are there and they are easy. But you have to go back and hunt them down. Describing places can especially lead to clichés.
This week, I was up for workshop. Having had enough of people reading my work for the moment, I decided to do a presentation instead. For this, I talked through a trip to Dover for my “train journey” (we had to write about taking a train, and since our London trip fell through, I decided to go to see the White Cliffs). I had never seen the White Cliffs (only from the ferry to France twenty years ago) and I wanted to go and walk on them.
I set out to take notes in as many ways as possible, doing so by using my notebook, recording myself using an app on my phone (I pretended that I was on the phone while I was doing this, holding it to my ear as if making a call), I also used my phone’s camera to take a bunch of pictures, collected various items, stopped at one point to do some freewriting and invented a premeditated game to try and get reactions out of some of the people that I met.
I ended up with five pages of notes, thirty minutes of recorded sounds, about thirty photos, four collected items and a page of freewriting. I’d also given a hearty “hello” to several people, with a myriad of responses – a game that made me feel good about the trip.
The next day, I wrote up all of these experiences in chronological order, as faithfully as I could, which was easily done because of the copious reminders I had of the trip. I had a lot of nice images, but it all felt a little empty. It was a bit like a school field trip, I had a bunch of detail and observation, but it wasn’t doing anything, it was just there. At this point I realised that I hadn’t really experienced anything during this trip, because I was so obsessed with the scents and views and feel of the cliffs, the tastes of the food in the cafe and sounds of the docks and the sea birds.
I decided to fictionalise some elements, and to throw in another person. What if this was the last day a couple were spending together? What if they were afraid of heights? As I turned my field trip into a story, I realised that many of the details were now superfluous and not helping out the action or driving the story forward in any meaningful way. A nice observation here and there was okay, but I ended up cutting MOST of the research that I had done.
Having said that, I feel that there is a nice authenticity to the story because a lot of it is real. I did go on this trip, and I know that no one can say that anything in the piece relating to the train, Dover or the cliffs is untrue, because all of it is 100% fact.
So now I understand the research that a writer has to do much more clearly. And this research is a separate and essential part of the process. The details garnered from reality are what makes fiction real to us. And yet most of that research probably won’t make it into the story, though I also think that it’s true to say that somehow it is all still “in there” in one way or another.
Here are some of my pics:
TERM 2 WEEK 9
Each week, a different student does a presentation on the book we are reading based on an aspect of writing (dialogue, POV, etc). This week it was my turn to do a presentation on Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, looking at it from the angle of “description”.
This was one of the easier things to do, as I just had to find the names for some of the things he was doing throughout the book. I don’t think my list was exhaustive, as I read the whole book through a while back, and then started re-reading to do this exercise, and didn’t get very far through (because he is doing something different on almost every page! The book is awesome. Here is what I found:
1/. Change in diction. In this case, juxtaposing the fantastical with the mundane.
2/. Fresh/unusual/surprising (specific) metaphors and similes.
4/. Adverbs:- He uses both adverbs common to speech in this conversational novel as well unusual and made up adverbs, even onomatopoeic adverbs.
6/. Specificity (in everyday description and in metaphor).
7/. Specialist language (occasionally).
8/. Turning sentences into noun phrases.
9/. Hyperbole (usually for comedic effect).
10/. Making up words (usually with a pleasing “sound” when they are read out loud).
11/. Understating:- Dropping a striking or surprising detail into the narrative and description. Usually unexpected (and often humorous).
12/. Sound:- certain pieces of language are clearly chosen for their sound. For example, words with many syllables paired with single syllable words.
13/. Articulation of the unspoken. He talks about everyday things that go unnoticed or unspoken, which gives even the most tedious of day to day activities a fresh perspective.
14/. Unique imagery:- He uses images that feel fresh and new. There is not a cliché in sight here.
15/. Enallage:- using one word category as another (e.g. using a noun as a verb).
16/. Reference:- to authors, books and journals his character reads (among other things).
I haven’t given examples because I’d be quoting most of the book. So just get hold of a copy and read it. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. The reviews talk of the everyday wonder, the observation and detail to rival any miscellany and the handle Baker has on our rituals and routines. You are sure to find something you relate to in here. Perhaps even something that you think that only you d0! Most of all, it’s going to change the way you look at description and is one of those exceptions that prove the rule. Almost every sentence is wondrous, and draws attention for some reason or another.
We also discussed describing things from memory versus actually going to a place that you need to describe. We had to describe the library from memory and then go there. Despite having gone into the library several times a week for the last six months, I wrote that the building was grey. It’s brown. So I guess David proved his point on that one…
One last thing that he discussed was “exactitude before metaphor”. If I asked what colour your mum’s eyes are, would you say “blue” or “they’re the colour of the sea”?
A final exercise we did this week was to make a grid. Along the top we wrote looks like, sounds like, tastes like, smells like and feels like. Down the side we chose 5 abstract nouns. Love, hate, friendship, etc. Then we had to write a word or phrase in each box of the grid as quickly as possible. A few clichés came up, but actually this is a very personal thing and some people chose some of the strangest ways to describe the taste of friendship or the smell of love.
The point seems to be that it’s not that hard to write a good sentence, or to come up with a fun turn of phrase. Certainly everyone in the class can do it, and easily with exercises like this. But getting through a novel where you stay true to the story and the characters, while still making it interesting enough to read, and giving enough description to paint a world but leave details for the reader too? That’s hard.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT
This week we read about the sea. We were tasked with coming up with a lesson plan for new creative writing students based on the sea and the texts that we had read. Not surprisingly, half the class from Fiction 2 stole David’s grid idea using the senses.
My group also stole the idea. Our plan was as follows:
1/. Write a cliché about the sea. (We would then feedback and hear some of these).
2/. Ask if the pieces have cliché or worn out phrases (one of the readings had “flat as a pancake”, which for us stood out as a *lower quality* simile compared with the rest of the text). At this point, we would discuss why it stood out, why the author used it and if there was a better way of saying the same thing.
3/. Put the class into groups and designate a section of the writing. The group has ten minutes to find a sentence or two that stands out as being good, or one from that section that stuck in their memory.
4/. We listen to the choices and talk about why these sentences were striking or memorable. We ask how they could compose such a sentence.
5/. Do the grid, using sea based nouns: sea water, sea air, sand, fish, sunbathing, or any other specific aspect of the seaside. Feedback on the more unusual choices and then finish up by getting students to write and then read out some sentences based on the exercise.
And that was week 9!
Only two more weeks before the second term is over. Term three isn’t really a term. We will have our dissertation to write, and three, hour-long meetings with our dissertation advisors. But there won’t be any classes, only writing (and finally reading all the stuff that is actually relevant reading for our work).
TERM 2 WEEK 10
This is the end, my friend (of the classes)
So, the final term finished…finally.
I’m not going to lie. This term was more of a struggle than last, particularly near the end. However, this was partly due to the fact that I have a job as well as doing this (I teach at at another university here) and I had a long and tiring 13 week term at work. To the point that I skipped the last week of classes on my MA and jumped on a train home as soon as my teaching duties were finished. (I only had a two week Easter break from my job, and skipping my classes gave me five extra days off)
Anyhoo, let’s recap what I did during the penultimate week, and check out my reading list for my time off…
So, everyone uses real life in their fiction, right? What can you do to disguise particularly incriminating subjects or incidents that you want to write about. This was the discussion at the start of class. Imagine you have the best story you have ever written, but it recalls the pains of your best friend’s divorce, or a scandal your aunt went through at her work. Would you pull the piece from a prestigious publication, publish anyway without consent, re-write or ask for permission?
Two quick fixes:
1/. Change stuff! Names, location, year, small details that won’t change the impact of the story. Apparently, most people do not recognise themselves in fiction anyway.
2/. Make people sexy. David says that if you make people sexy, all else will be forgiven. This was a little tongue in cheek, but it makes sense. If you can portray a few aspects of them in a good light, then maybe they wouldn’t mind you using their sex scandal as the basis for your latest novel. 😉
The thing David was trying to get at with this lesson was that if you worry about this kind of thing while you’re writing, then you’ve already put a barrier up between you and your work. Most of us are good enough at that without adding more stuff that gets in the way. So forget about it, just write, and you can deal with it later.
A couple other things he threw in at the end:
1/. Writing is work. Treat it that way. Be serious. People need to know to leave you alone when you’re working.
2/. Routine is your friend. If you can get into the habit of setting aside a specific time to write, then those around you will come to respect that time as your writing time.
WRITING AND THE ENVIRONMENT:
Today we looked at the idea of the Objective Correlative, first proposed by T. S. Eliot in 1921 to describe how Shakespeare creates emotion in the reader. The idea is that the emotions are not described or stated, but replicated (created) in the reader. It’s a bit of a tricky one, kind of like using certain ingredients in your writing to cook up an emotion, so the words, situations, chain of events that you use will bring about a sensory experience.
Yeah. It’s as easy as it sounds…
Also, many “classic examples” have now become cliché (storm to represent anger, the sun shining for love and happiness, etc).
So, having read Checkhov’s The Lady with the Dog, before class, we had to go through and find instances of Objective Correlative within. This was harder than it sounds, as some parts are genuinely just description, while others are in place more to evoke feeling. When you’re trying to look for it though, you wonder if everything is Objective Correlative. As we quickly discovered. It isn’t.
After doing this, we had to try and come up with some of our own. My pen exploded with clichés. In the end I wrote this (with my tongue in my cheek): When she left, I finished my Snickers, and dropped the wrapper into the bin, losing sight of it amongst the trash. Across the street, a seagull laughed.
It’s no Checkhov with his watermelons, ships, and purple clouds, but it’s a start.
We then did an exercise where we were given a list of emotions/feelings.We had to choose a feeling that we are currently trying to convey somewhere in our work. Next we had to think about where we felt it, the objects, the key details, the similarities in different instances that we had felt this particular feeling. I had some clear ideas that stood out for me while thinking about it in these terms.
Then the idea is to figure out how you could put certain details from these experiences into a story to produce or highlight a feeling that you want to evoke. It’s a bit different from the ol’ metaphors and similes.
Writing this post a few weeks later though, I really worked hard at putting Objective Correlative into my end of term coursework. I’m not sure how successful I was, but I avoided saying too much about feelings where I could. I still had the odd metaphor and simile in there too, of course, but I was mostly going more for mood/atmosphere/tone/feeling. Particularly with landscape, as I worked on a story set at an old airfield.
Give it a go for yourself after searching out Objective Correlative in that Checkhov piece. There’s hints for careful readers earlier in this post. 😉
This week, I also had a tutorial with Scarlett Thomas, to talk about my piece of work for her module and also about my dissertation. She gave me a reading list, which I began devouring from the moment I left her office. So from that point and over my Easter break, I have read all of the following books:
This was a rather enjoyable experience. Adam Johnson and Milan Kundera weren’t on the list I was given from Scarlett. I came across Mr Johnson after reading his Short Story Award winning piece, “Nirvana” (The Orphan Master’s Son won the Pulitzer, if you care about that sort of thing). If you follow the link to the story, you can read or listen to Adam himself reading Nirvana, which I’d say is well worth your time.
That’s it for term two!
I hope something in these helped you with your writing or gave you an idea of the week to week experience of the course. I hope that this can go some way in helping a few of you make the decision of whether or not to pursue a Master’s degree.
Read on to find out about my dissertation, why I hate workshopping and for a peek at Alex Preston’s “Creative Writing Bible”. And as always:
If you have read some of my older posts, you might have read something about my dissertation before. If not, here is the lowdown:
1/. I have to write a dissertation.
2/. It has to be 20,000 words (of fiction – sorry people doing a real Master’s! ;-).
3/. It can be made up of short stories/snippets, or a long section of a novel. Anything goes, basically.
4/. My dissertation advisor is Scarlett Thomas.
5/. I get three meetings with her before I’m left to my own devices.
6/. It’s due in August.
I had written about 50,000 words of a book project before I arrived on this degree. As the degree has progressed, my word count got smaller and smaller, finally ending up at about half of what I came with. During chats with various people about this, they have all said that the course has been doing it’s job if I cut so much from my work. They were probably right. I could see a lot of filler and back story, as well as the fleshing out of characters (probably me figuring them out), and none of that needed to be in the book.
Originally, I thought that I would try to finish this book during my degree, but I have been losing my mojo with it for a while. Part of this has been because I think I spent too much time workshopping it, and therefore lost a drive for the project because I had spoken about it too much. Next, it had stopped being a story that I had to tell and become one that I simply wanted to finish because I had put a lot of time and effort into it. It wasn’t wasted, because it’s all practice, but still.
Scarlett had asked me why I was writing it before the Easter break, and though a lot of responses came to mind, I realised that they were just me trying to convince myself that I should finish, because writers need to actually finish things if they are going to be writers.
During the first meeting, Scarlett asked the question: “Who would do a better job of writing this novel; me or you?”
She was eliciting the fact that her experience of having written many novels would better equip her to write the project that I was working on. Her point being that I should be working on something that I could tell better than she could, a story that ONLY I COULD TELL.
This had come through a little in the assessment I did for her writing and the environment module, as I had written something very personal, and I could feel while I was writing it that it was probably better than anything else I had written for the course. I knew it was good because it was hard. Not hard to come up with, just that it was something close to my heart, and something that I was a little scared to put down on the page. She told me that this is exactly what we should be looking for as writers.
What about finishing stuff? I asked.
Her response was that when you hit on the good stuff, there is no question that you will finish, because you have to tell it.
This made me wonder about the millions of ideas that I’m constantly having. If I’m not telling or compelled to tell those stories, then they are probably the wrong stories. So how the hell am I supposed to come up with a new idea, one that I love and care about, and write 20,000 (good) words of it in a couple of months?
I realised that maybe I didn’t have millions of ideas after all.
ENTER THE MATRIX:
This matrix is not a Keanu Reeves movie, but an idea generator based on your own experience. You make an 8X8 table on a piece of paper, and along the top there are headers for each column. The topics are: character names (8), places you know well (4), jobs you’ve done/identities you’ve had (8), skills/knowledge you have (8), problems you’ve had (8), what you worry about (8), favourite novels and why (4) and a list of things you’re currently obsessed with (8). From this, you can build a few characters and start to brainstorm ways of them solving their problems and how a plot might be contrived to have them interact together.
There is also a list of questions, including, among others, your thoughts on religion, relationships, images that stick in your mind, our place in the universe, philosophical ideas that you have thought about, etc. This seems to be more for finding out what your belief system is, as no doubt whatever that is will find its way into your writing somehow.
For a much fuller explanation of all of this, grab a copy of Scarlett’s excellent book, Monkeys with Typewriters:
There’s a blank matrix in the appendix (pg 404) and fuller instructions on how to use it in the chapter titled “How to Have Ideas” (Pg 192).
And so this has been my homework this week. Tomorrow I have meeting number two, in which I need to bring my matrix and the ideas that I have had using it, and I’ll hopefully get some guidance on putting together something interesting.
I was also told to go and look at the basic plot structures, and just to think about how the information from the matrix might be more biased towards certain structures. Which is how I intend to spend my afternoon. It’s goodnight to the story I spent two years on before I got here, and good morning to fresh ideas. Judging by my matrix, the story will be set in, or have characters going to Japan. See; knowledge/skills/current obsessions.
Meeting two was a riffing session. I knew before even looking at story structures that I would be telling a coming of age story in the first person. I knew that my characters would be from small town Scotland. I knew that they would be going to Japan – probably for a video game competition. I suspected that I would be setting it in the early nineties, so that I could use my knowledge of the video games of that era (I didn’t keep up).
I blurted all this out to Scarlett, and she loved the idea. I was told not to get too involved in case it didn’t work out, but that it sounded good and there was no reason that it shouldn’t work out. I was tasked to write 5,000 words for the next meeting, and just to play around with things. Apparently 5,000 words is a good amount to get your teeth into something, but also not so long as you would be gutted if you had to chuck it.
Off I went to write 5,000 words.
I had a full week off and spent it writing. On a couple of days my word count hit 5,000 words A DAY! I sent Scarlett 17,000 words in the end. When I went for our dissertation meeting she was still reading it and told me to come back later. When I did, she said: “Well, that’s your dissertation finished. Now finish the book.” I was surprised to say the least, because writing so much so quickly I didn’t even really know what I was sending her and for all I knew it could’ve been rubbish.
We discussed that the work was raw and had a ways to go, but that there was time to go over what I would hand in as my dissertation later. For the time being, I was encouraged to keep writing as fast as it was coming.
With another week off, I topped out at over 30,000 words. Then I went to work full time and couldn’t write much at all. However, being inspired I decided to holiday that summer for three weeks in Japan as research for the book. I got another 10,000 words written up while I was there.
Following on from the Holiday, I set myself the challenge of finishing my first draft before my graduation ceremony, that way I would finish a book before getting my degree, even if it wasn’t the one I had expected to finish (or start, for that matter!). I finished my draft on November 13th, a day before my birthday.
I graduated a week later, with distinction, on 21/11/2014.
I don’t know what is going to happen with this book. It may be published, it may not. I have dipped in already and worked on it a little more and I know that there’s still a long way to go with it before it is ready for that stuff, but getting a finished draft of the thing done felt like such an achievement, and all in about 6 months.
All in all, this course was a process, and like Patricia told me over a year ago when it was all starting, I will probably be processing what happened, what I learned, for years. Incorporating everything you’ve read here into my writing is no overnight technical fix. It’s consistent practice. Forever.
It was worth it for me. I needed what I consider to be a fast-forward, or a jump start into writing. This course was it. It made me a better reader, it gave me technical advice, it forced me to read A LOT, it made me read things I would never have otherwise picked up, it asked lots of questions about writing, the process, and why I (or anyone else) would ever consider taking that path.
I don’t know if such a course would be worth it for you, or be what you’re looking for. Only you know the answer to that, but hopefully this blow by blow account of mine will help to push you one way or the other.
POST SCRIPT 1 – WORKSHOPS
In term 1, I was all for workshopping. I hadn’t done that much of it, so it was still a novelty to receive a workshop for the duration of the term. I have no doubts that workshopping is something that was HUGELY beneficial for my writing practice. It changed the way I was reading books, the work of my classmates, and my own work.
As I stated several times throughout this epic MA journey, the most important part of the workshop process was reading OTHER PEOPLES’ WORK. Not getting feedback! One instructor told us that reading the work of others is important to build editing skills and a “bullsh*t detector”. Another said that they would NEVER workshop their material the way we do!
I am an advocate of getting help, especially if you’re in the early stages of your writing. There are technical aspects you can learn quickly with a little help and practise. And the fastest way to learn a lot of these tools is to a) READ! and b) Have a reading group of quality readers/writers. It’s finding quality people that might not be so easy, but in time, it will happen.
After a lot of workshopping in the first term, I had too many ideas about where to take the piece I was working on, and yet no time to process or work on these ideas. I did begin to read “like a writer”, seeing the positives/negatives that I found in others’ writing within my own, and in the books I’ve read since. Yes, real, live writers all make these “mistakes” too (and thats WITH editors and copy-editors) – another positive lesson.
However, while this all helps to get you “reading like a writer”, it got to the stage where I needed other people to stay away so I could actually get on with some writing and bring what I was learning into my work.
There was simply no time for this during term, and with work commitments, and more reading than in term 1, I started to shudder at the thought of those workshop pieces coming through. One reason for this is that a lot of the same things come up week in, week out; so admittedly, it occasionally felt pointless.
I even decided to do a presentation in Scarlett’s class as opposed to workshopping my own writing, and in David’s class I turned down my option of a second workshop. When the term finished and I had a two week break away from all of that, I cranked out 1,000-5,000 words a day, and was happier with the quality of those first draft words that I ever have been.
I’m sure a large part of that is down to the amount of reading I had to do for workshops, but I also feel that this in itself is a process that will only go so far, and at some point the workshops should be left behind and writing be a personal thing (close reading group maybe – constant workshopping week in, week out – NO CHANCE!).
I’m probably labouring the point here, so what I am really trying to say is that yes, this process helped a lot, especially when it was new and I learned a lot of new things. However, after a certain time, a weekly/biweekly workshop was just too much. You may love this process, it may be beneficial to you, you may love collaborating and helping others, it may give you a motivation to constantly produce – there are many positives. Others may love the attention their work gets, or find that it gets in the way of their writing time.
The take away here is to know how you feel about it, cause there’s going to be a LOT of it on a creative writing course. If you have done a lot of this already, you may not feel like you need to pay a lot of money to do even more. Alternatively, the chance to do so with awesomesauce authors, particularly if you can do it with one you admire or whose work is in a similar vein to your own might prove to be worth every penny.
While I personally wouldn’t change how my course was delivered, I also won’t be attending workshops now that it’s all over. 😉
POST SCRIPT 2 – THE CREATIVE WRITING BIBLE
“The first draft of anything is shit.”
One of our lectures this term was based on Alex’s personal “Creative Writing Bible.”
It consists of thoughts, opinions and ideas from three writers who tried to put into words how to go about the craft. They are;
HEMINGWAY – Many of you will have come across the 1954 Nobel Laureate’s quotes (even if you didn’t know they were his!).
SEBALD – The German author and poet widely believed to be one of the greatest living authors at the time of his death in 2001.
LISH – Gordon Lish is perhaps best known as the man behind Raymond Carver, having edited many of his works. He is a writer, editor and was a creative writing teacher for many years, his quotes come from lectures he gave during this time.
Get a cup of tea – 4,000 words of wisdom comin’ at ya:
PART I: HEMINGWAY
1. “In order to write about life first you must live it.”
2. “The most essential gift for a good writer is a built-in, shockproof, shit detector.”
3. “It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way.”
4. “I would stand and look out over the roofs of Paris and think, “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.”
5. “There is no rule on how to write. Sometimes it comes easily and perfectly; sometimes it’s like drilling rock and then blasting it out with charges.”
6. “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
7. “I write one page of masterpiece to ninety-one pages of shit. I try to put the shit in the wastebasket.”
8. “If a writer stops observing he is finished. Experience is communicated by small details intimately observed.”
9. “I believe that basically you write for two people; yourself to try and make it absolutely perfect; or if not that then wonderful. then you write for who you love whether they can read or write or not and whether they are alive or dead.”
10. “My aim is to put down on paper what I see and what I feel in the best and simplest way.”
11. “Once writing has become your major vice and greatest pleasure only death can stop it.”
12. “When writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is a caricature.”
13. “A man’s got to take a lot of punishment to write a really funny book.”
14. “Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it-don’t cheat with it.”
15. “The most solid advice for a writer is this, I think: Try to learn to breathe deeply, really to taste food when you eat, and when you sleep really to sleep. Try as much as possible to be wholly alive with all your might, and when you laugh, laugh like hell. And when you get angry, get good and angry. Try to be alive. You will be dead soon enough.”
16. “it is all very well for you to write simply and the simpler the better. But do not start to think so damned simply. Know how complicated it is and then state it simply.”
17. “The first draft of anything is shit.”
18. “All good books are alike in that they are truer than if they had really happened and after you are finished reading one you will feel that all that happened to you and afterwards it all belongs to you: the good and the bad, the ecstasy, the remorse and sorrow, the people and the places and how the weather was. If you can get so that you can give that to people, then you are a writer.”
19. “I always try to write on the principle of the iceberg. There is seven-eighths of it underwater for every part that shows.”
20. “Remember to get the weather in your damn book–weather is very important.”
PART II: SEBALD
There is a certain merit in leaving some parts of your writing obscure.
It’s hard to write something original about Napoleon, but one of his minor aides is another matter.
In the twentieth century we know that the observer always affects what is being observed. So, writing biography now, you have to talk about where you got your sources, how it was talking to that woman in Beverly Hills, the trouble you had at the airport.
Physicists now say there is no such thing as time: everything co-exists. Chronology is entirely artificial and essentially determined by emotion. Contiguity suggests layers of things, the past and present somehow coalescing or co-existing.
The present tense lends itself to comedy. The past is foregone and naturally melancholic.
There is a species of narrator, the chronicler; he’s dispassionate, he’s seen it all.
You need to set things very thoroughly in time and place unless you have good reasons [not to]. Young authors are often too worried about getting things moving on the rails, and not worried enough about what’s on either side of the tracks.
A sense of place distinguishes a piece of writing. It may be a distillation of different places. There must be a very good reason for not describing place.
Meteorology is not superfluous to the story. Don’t have an aversion to noticing the weather.
How do you surpass horror once you’ve reached a certain level? How do you stop appearing gratuitous? Horror must be absolved by the quality of the prose.
‘Significant detail’ enlivens otherwise mundane situations. You need acute, merciless observation.
Oddities are interesting.
Characters need details that will anchor themselves in your mind.
It’s always gratifying to learn something when one reads fiction. Dickens introduced it. The essay invaded the novel. But we should not perhaps trust ‘facts’ in fiction. It is, after all, an illusion.
Exaggeration is the stuff of comedy.
It’s good to have undeclared, unrecognized pathologies and mental illnesses in your stories. The countryside is full of undeclared pathologies. Unlike in the urban setting, there, mental affliction goes unrecognized.
Particular disciplines have specialized terminology that is its own language. I could translate a page of Ian McEwan in half an hour—but golf equipment! another matter. Two Sainsbury’s managers talking to each other are a different species altogether.
Read books that have nothing to do with literature.
There has to be a libidinous delight in finding things and stuffing them in your pockets.
You must get the servants to work for you. You mustn’t do all the work yourself. That is, you should ask other people for information, and steal ruthlessly from what they provide.
None of the things you make up will be as hair-raising as the things people tell you.
I can only encourage you to steal as much as you can. No one will ever notice. You should keep a notebook of tidbits, but don’t write down the attributions, and then after a couple of years you can come back to the notebook and treat the stuff as your own without guilt.
Don’t be afraid to bring in strange, eloquent quotations and graft them into your story. It enriches the prose. Quotations are like yeast or some ingredient one adds.
Look in older encyclopedias. They have a different eye. They attempt to be complete and structured but in fact are completely random collected things that are supposed to represent our world.
It’s very good that you write through another text, a foil, so that you write out of it and make your work a palimpsest. You don’t have to declare it or tell where it’s from.
A tight structural form opens possibilities. Take a pattern, an established model or sub-genre, and write to it. In writing, limitation gives freedom.
If you look carefully you can find problems in all writers. And that should give you great hope. And the better you get at identifying these problems, the better you will be at avoiding them.
It’s easy to write rhythmical prose. It carries you along. After a while it gets tedious.
Lots of things resolve themselves just by being in the drawer a while.
PART III: LISH
If you can look at the world as no one else has seen it, then you’ve got something.
The first sentence is the catastrophic equation. . . is a sentential event. . . is congested. . . is dense with utterance. It comes from the body, not the mind and cannot be taught; the rest can.
You should have nothing but that object of your fascination . . . Go to an extreme of desire . . . Engage in an act of self-interrogation; what is the real mystery? Who is talking? Who has the need? Who sees? Who sees me? Who’s talking when you talk? What do you see first? Go deeper, what aspect of this fascinates you? What language do you need to describe them?
Your task is to produce an illusion of the world beginning now . . . Don’t write until the totality of the song is in your head as a total eruption . . . The sentence should not be a sentence that communicates, but one that presents. Not a sentence about the world, but one that is the world entire.
With your language, you are looking for a new heart.
When the voice isn’t your voice, it’s the voice of death.
Put yourself in a state of mind, positing a blank frame. Into the blank frame, cleared of everything — expectation, ideas, teachers, whatever — introduce an object (in the case of a novel – several) which can be anything seen, heard, touched, perceivable, sensual — to the exclusion of all other objects. Be open, truly open, in the presence of what truly fascinates you. The more powerful your ability to exclude, the more successful you will be.
“The only sentence that matters is the one you’re writing.” Do not look ahead two or three sentences, thinking, Oh, but wait, I have to get through two or three more of these sentences before I can get to the really good stuff. Make the sentence you are at the place you are at, and make it a place of stone and steel, not a place of sand and clay. Fashion this sentence out of what has gone before on your page, always moving forward by looking back. Turn, swerve, torque and twist upon what you have written, finding new ways to render your object, and through these maneuvers, finding the way to write your heart out.
“The job is not to know what you are going to find.” What you will end up finding is your own heart, and finding that, you will find the hearts of all other women and men.
It takes courage to speak your heart, to really speak all that is in your heart. This courage, this is what made the great writers great — their audacity, their will, their courage to speak. They did not wait for permission to speak their hearts — they spoke out of having no other choice but to speak.
“No one is chosen. One chooses one’s self.” No one owes any debt of attention to be paid to you; there are a million people just like you clamoring to be heard. Do not wait your turn — take your turn, take everyone else’s besides. Do you dare to “piss with the big dogs”? Who told you you could? Who told you you could not? Bite their cocks off and spit them back in their faces; tell them, `I am here, in town and on the page, and I’m not here to piss with the big dogs, I’m here to piss on the big dogs.’
Not just any speech will turn the trick. ”You want a sentence that has pressure pressure pressure pressure.” You want a sentence, and not just a sentence but every sentence, to be like an ace in tennis, like a line drive with “high spin, low wobble.”
Find the major, basal, fundamental, ineradicable losses of your life. In these losses lie your artistic powers. ”The thing taken from you is your gift.”
Stick to it. Stick to your object, stick to your writing, stick to your dreams, stick to yourself. You will find that such steadfastness will perpetuate itself.
Beware of exposition in dialogue. Keep your dialogue numinous, not narrative.
Curve back in your stories in every possible way: thematically, structurally, acoustically; be aware of the power of assonance; be aware that every morpheme, every phoneme counts. Do not write in a linear fashion — such writing is weak. Do not spew out actions and ideas in the manner of a comedian or magician whose every trick or joke is bombing, who tosses new material out in a desperate attempt to connect with his or her audience.
`The act of writing is an opportunistic act.’ — Dennis Donoghue. Do not confine your work to plodding plot; rather, let your work go where it and your heart will lead you.
“Stay on the body.” Do not go below the surfaces of your objects, seeking to explain their inner truths. Write for the readers who will be able to find the signs of depth and truth through empathic reading of accurate description.
Don’t hold back, and don’t save it up. Love your work and love your reader, and give every line everything you have. Remember, in reaching through your writing to a reader, you are engaged in nothing so much as an act of seduction. Seduce the whole fucking world, for all time.
Shun the “airy persiflage.” By all means, keep your sense of irony about yourself and your work, but hit as a heavyweight would hit. Write with gravitas.
“Render the object.” This is it: describe the thing as to you it is, and through such description the truths of your heart and of all humanity will be revealed.
Stick to simple, concrete objects. For instance, as an opening sentence, `The table held a book,’ is no great shakes, but think of where you could go from there. What you want, really, is an exorbitant opening sentence, a hook that hooks your reader to a line that could lead anywhere and everywhere.
The more you tell your grand truth, the more you become embedded in your own mythology — make a mythic figure of yourself. Kick Shakespeare in the balls and shove Homer down the stairs. It’s easy — it costs you no less than your life.
Remember your Zen koan — `First there is a mountain, then there is no mountain, then there is.’ It is the same with developing power on the page. First you have to know how, then you must forget you know how. You must practice all the time. You must fall in love with your language, learn its strengths and weaknesses, come to the point where you are automatically making strong sentences in your mind all the time, sentences you have no fear of discarding as with your language you become more and more adept. You must never fear throwing your work away. Such a sloughing-off will make you stronger, larger, more mature in your art.
Do not automatically use contractions. Consider the power, the acoustics, the cadences involved, the tone of your piece, your stance and your authority, when you make a decision regarding contractions and their employment.
Keep mystery in your work. Mystery gives power to a story, but remember — mystery is not the same thing as confusion.
Read your work aloud. Your work must work aloud. Prose fiction should be speech, and that doesn’t necessarily mean it should be ignorant speech.
“You are the god of the page. Be God first. Entirely. Wholly. The rest follows.” The page is your world, and you are supreme there. You are Siva, the creator and destroyer of worlds, and you dance upon the infant page. You control the horizontal; you control the vertical. ”Don’t waste your time reporting on the event — be the event.”
“The farther you can get from the history of your life, the closer you may get to the story that is you.”
“The work must be worthy of your death.”
Respecting so-called `characters,’ and paraphrasing Grace Paley, in a story, there are no characters — there are people; furthermore, they are not people, they are ink on a page. What gets onto the page is not well-rounded characters, it is the evidence of your desire to be heard.
Write from the Oedipal principle; write to overcome the preceding generation, be it those writers who have gone before you, the last piece you wrote, or in what you are writing now, the most recent sentence you have placed upon the page.
In your attack, which is, of course, your opening, present objects real, physical, tangible, visible — do not present the abstract. The abstract arises most naturally, most powerfully, and most subtly out of the presentation of the concrete.
Stripping away the adjectives, those pretty, petty flourishes, this will make a more powerful piece of work.
Pay attention to “the conduit of knowledge” — who knows what in a story and how is it known. The strongest position to take is to reveal only that which could be known by whatever `person’ is speaking in the story, and to reveal as little of that as you can get away with.
A repetition of the Oedipal principle in the making of art:
1) Belatedness must be defeated, and the feelings of belatedness arising in your heart when you see a piece of work you wish you had done first, these feelings must be overtaken. Defeat the feeling of “the absence of priority…. Stand on the shoulders of giants.”
2) You must overtake, you must consume, that which has gone before. ”You take strength from the parent by eating the parent. You honor the parent by eating the parent.”
3) Eating the parent makes the parent part of the child. Consider, what is the parent? What is your parent, the parent of your work, the parent of the sentence you are writing right now?
4) When you fashion each sentence to consume the previous sentence, each sentence, in a way, becomes the first, the attack sentence. ”The sentence I’m putting down must contend with the prior sentence.”
5) Through such contention and consumption is irony born.
6) Yes, this is very, very hard work. ”Priority is truly the undoing of us all.”
7) Each sentence struggles against each sentence, each story contends with each story, and through such struggle and contention, your work is made stronger.
“Refactoring” — searching for better ways to put a thing. There is always a better way. ”If you refactor, you don’t have to invent.”
Always be prepared to overtake, argue with, and undercut what you just wrote.
Cultivate a memory for what you have written, so you learn to almost automatically capitalize on resonances phonemic, morphemic, and thematic.
You are always showing one whole object, but piece by piece, its wholeness implicit, its every part contingent upon its every other part, such contingency leaving the reader ever alert to the wholeness of your object.
To be the only one who speaks, go far — “You can’t go far enough.”
“You can’t go far enough.”
“You can’t go far enough.”
“You can’t go far enough.”
“You can’t go far enough.”
Get way the hell out there. DO NOT BE AFRAID — YOU SIMPLY CANNOT GO FAR ENOUGH.
“Please, for pity’s sake, read slowly, write slowly.”
Each part of your writing must resonate with every other part of your writing, throughout your life.
“There’s no end to the labor. There’s no end to the labor. There’s no end to the labor. There’s no end to the labor. But isn’t that wonderful?”
“It isn’t enough to be a writer — be a re-writer.”
You must be most careful about the consistencies of various voices, especially the authorial voice, if your authority is to be maintained. If you do not have authority on the page, you have nothing on the page.
“If anybody can see your sentence better than you can see your sentence, you do not own it — they own it.”
Attention to detail is of importance paramount. As in the work of a great painter, it is in the brush strokes that the presence of the artist can most strongly be perceived.
On the matter of courage: the writer must come to grips with his deepest knowledge of herself. ”Undoing the self is the greatest jeopardy,” but without this jeopardy, there is no greatness as a writer to be had. ”Truly, on the page, you can get away with anything, anything, anything. It’s just words…. You must be liberated from this fear to have the life of a literary artist.” Don’t pull your punches — there is nothing to be gained from it, and greatness to be lost. Don’t hold back.
Address “the objects that are at the center of you.” There are only a few of them, of these truly vital objects of yours. Turn to them, speak to them, speak of them.
Write like a jazz musician plays.
“You must have infinite respect for the infinitesimally small, because, believe me, it’s waiting for you to fuck up.”
“It’s like music, it’s like painting, it’s like engineering, this making of well-wrought prose fiction.” Ascertain within yourself the cadence which you can tap into when you compose your sentences. ”You dress in harmony — write in harmony.”
It is about knowing what to put in and what to leave out, and knowing that knowing what to leave out is just as important as knowing what to put in.
From each moment to each moment as you write, leave yourself free to abandon whatever direction you think you may be taking, and write opportunistically. Throw away your plots, throw away your history of you, and write from your heart.
There is a certain amount of authority in the negative assertion, eg, `I want to tell you this story but I don’t know how it ends.’
You want to make as many points of contact with the reader as possible. Metatextuality is one way to do this.
Position yourself as an artist with respect to what is going on around you in all media of art, as the best of that art expresses the human heart.
The English language is a lot larger than the confines within which most writers work and move, larger both in vocabulary and in its structural possibilities. Being a hybrid of Teutonic and Romance languages provides to English great structural flexibility and a natural musicality. If you start listening for the musicality, for the cadences and the phonemes, you will find the structure opening up for you as you write. As for vocabulary, witness Shakespeare, who used four times as many words as most writers use — no few of which words he coined himself. Be a regent if you dare, rule the language and mint the new coin of its realm.
Words fail in themselves and because of themselves to express emotion, to illumine the truly human side of human being, but taken as a whole, as a story, as an artistic form, they can provide such illumination. Remember, it’s not content that counts, not what’s-this-about, but form that counts — you take care of the form and the content will take care of itself.
A work of art is not an expression of feeling, but is the demonstration of the artist’s knowledge of many feelings. Thereby is your connection to your audience made, for whether we like it or not, we all feel all there is to feel.
You create such a dynamic form when you interact with your story as you compose it, as you swerve, as you torque, as you consecute, unpacking and turning back to look and look again, to see and see anew — you make a motor that starts every time somebody reads it. It’s a virtual entity. This entity will reveal to the reader profundities you would have missed entirely had you aimed directly at attempting to reveal them.
If you reach a point in a piece where you have an obvious situation developing, you’ve narrowed your story down to two choices — either it happens, or it doesn’t, and you have become predictable. Be not predictable. Keep your reader guessing, keep your reader on seat’s edge, keep your reader coming back for more and still more.
You do not want to explain a thing. ”You want to bewitch by the preservation of mystery.”
You undercut your authority by declaring a plain facticity with overwrought prose. Decongest your pages. Triple space. Leave wide margins. Use paragraphing the same way you would use any other trick of your trade — play with it, make it work for you, not confine you. The white spaces count, too — you are making a visually-perceived work of art. Play with it.
Just as you can never go too far, you can never be too tough on yourself. You must learn to look and see if what you are writing is appropriate to the form of your story, or if it is mere decoration, empty and pointless fluff. Your work “must be shorn of everything that is incidental.”
As for symbolism, you make the piece a symbol in itself through powerful form — nothing else will achieve this symbol-making effect.
If you have an argument, a point to make, an ideology, some trendy political correctness, you weaken your work. If you have no other point than making a piece of art powerful and true, said piece becomes its own point.
I hope that some of that was useful!? Now go and write the truest sentence you can muster! 😉
And for the last time: