On Editing & Bird by Bird: how different approaches to writing can be!

This month I bought two more writing advice guides: On Editing by Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, and Bird By Bird by Anne Lamott, both of which I’ve been meaning to read for ages.

The contrasts between them are remarkable; you’d be forgiven for thinking they aren’t about the same subject at all.

On Editing is practical, clear, logical and full of excellent editing advice, like how to develop a Show Not Tell mindset, how and why to control viewpoint, and classic ways of plotting your story’s shape.

Bird By Bird is personal, wise, endearing, and full of excellent creative writing advice about the importance of not taking yourself too seriously, of finishing whatever small portion of a story you’ve started, of silencing inner critics, of freeing your imagination.

Devouring them both, it became clear that On Editing is the right book for me as a mentor for writers seeking publication, but I dithered about whether Lamott’s vision might be more relevant to where I am at the moment as a writer: i.e. starting over.

Again.

(Yup, I know. Sadly, after a year or so exploring the WWII story I’ve blogged about before, I found I didn’t believe in it enough to keep on keeping on. Never mind. There are galaxies of stories out there, and we only need to discover one star.)

Anyhow, if you’re a writer you’ve no doubt discovered long since that there is no ‘right’ way to write a story. This is a truism of our business. We each do what we do. Plot or not. Start with a hunch or refine a premise. Run with an obsession. Fall in love with a character. Ask What If…?

After a decade of attending writing courses, and running them myself, this tenet of individuality had come to seem rather obvious and run-of-the-mill. Trite, even.

I certainly thought I knew myself: I plot, I structure, I edit. Guides like On Editing, Story and Into the Woods were the books for me. Then…

I attempted to teach creative writing skills to young people who weren’t remotely interested in the subject (!) but had, nonetheless, to write an original story for their exams. In the classroom, all the received wisdom, all the insights about creativity I’d gained over the years seemed to count for naught.

My enthusiasm for conflict, for protagonists, for rising tension and turning points simply didn’t translate into 450-600 word coherent narratives, with varied sentence structure, and good spelling, punctuation and grammar, to be written in 45 minutes.

Worse still, my research into effective ways of teaching creative writing in schools and colleges unearthed an alarming amount of academic evidence that professional writers teaching in class have statistically insignificant effects on official measurements of pupil attainment and progress.

[It was a relief to read the Literacy Trust’s recent report which showed author visits do have positive benefits for literacy, but that report came out too late to offer any comfort during my teacher training year.]

Suitably humbled, and with a new toolkit marked “author visitor”, I’ve now returned to the realm of the writer with renewed appreciation for the magic and wonder of the creative process. What a gift it is to be able (eventually) to say what you mean, and shape that into a story worth sharing.

It no longer seems to matter a jot whether one writes methodically, with a guide like On Editing to hand, or as a free spirit, completing each nugget Bird by Bird. What to write remains a big question, of course. But how to write it? Any damn way you please.

This blog first appeared on Awfully Big Blog Adventure July 15, 2019

 

Setting out to discover The Goose Road

In my edition of Sebastian Faulks’ Birdsong, his powerful World War 1 novel centred on the first, disastrous day of the Battle of the Somme, Mr Faulks says the original inspiration for his story dated back to his schooldays, when he’d read out at Assembly all the names of the old boys who had died in the fighting.

In the preface to my edition, he says, “It was a tiny school, but the list was so long that I was excused lessons the next day with a sore throat.” His curiosity was piqued by this terrible list, along with his history teacher’s reluctance to talk about the war.

Unlike Faulks, my schoolgirl brushes with the First World War convinced me for decades that I knew as much as I’d ever want to know about the horrors of that conflict: the nightmare gas attacks, the mutilated, dismembered bodies, lions led by donkeys, the pity of war…

Even at the London School of Economics, where I studied 20th century history as part of my international relations degree, I shied from courses that covered the 1914-1918 war years. Politics, I felt back then, ended when the fighting began and resumed when it ended. And I was only interested in politics.

It wasn’t until 2013, on the eve of the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War, that chance changed my mind.

In the summer of that year, Andersen Press announced a short story competition for students on the writing for young people MA which I was attending at Bath Spa University. The rules were simple: write a story set during WW1 with a girl protagonist. The prize: publication.

I jumped at the chance, partly out of journalistic impatience – a short story would demand a concentrated effort over weeks (months at most) and not the wearisome years it takes to complete a novel – but also because my imagination had been fired by seeing the National Theatre’s brilliant production of War Horse the previous Christmas.

Most important of all, this was a real subject, one that demanded research. Travel. Facts. I’m not a big fan of sitting around, fishing in the well of the subconscious for story ideas. I look outward for inspiration, not inward.

But my subconscious was at work whether I knew it or not. Something intuitive and deep-rooted stirred as the Andersen editor talked us through the competition. It brought to mind one image of WW1 in particular, a photograph I’d seen years before on a television documentary.

The photograph showed hundreds of farmyard geese waiting in a French railway marshalling yard, and was being used to illustrate how Spanish Influenza – the terrible bird ’flu pandemic which swept the world in waves in 1918 and 1919, killing tens of millions of people – arrived in France in the winter of 1916/1917, and also how it spread via soldiers returning home by railways and ships.

I now believe that picture provided me with what Skellig author David Almond calls ‘the freedom of knowing your limitations,’ an idea he came across through the American author, Flannery O’Connor.

In an interview, he explained: ‘For me, it was a matter of accepting certain things about myself that were going to be the things that gave me my true voice and my true subject … like the fact that I’d been brought up as a Catholic; that I’d been brought up living in the North East. I spent a long time trying to struggle against those things and cast them out from my work. It was only when I got to the point of realizing that that wasn’t working, and just sighing and saying, ‘Oh yes, that’s what I am’ and accepting those things, that they actually brought a great deal of richness and imagery to my work.’

That WW1 photograph gave me France, a country where I’d lived and worked as a Reuter’s foreign correspondent and always love to revisit. It gave me geese: mysterious birds linked to witchcraft and early Celtic mythology. It gave me railways and the steam trains that had taken my grandfather to the battlefields of the Dardanelles in 1916. Andersen Press demanded a wartime heroine. I had my creative limitations.

Armed with the complete poems of Wilfred Owen, the SatNav coordinates of a French rural museum which kept a flock of Toulouse geese, and a growing conviction that I’d remained wilfully ignorant of what had happened between 1914 and 1918 long enough, I set off to discover the story that would win me the Andersen Press competition, as The Marshalling of Angelique’s Geese (War Girls, 2014), and five years later would be published by Walker Books as a full length novel for teens as The Goose Road.

This article first appeared on YouTuber and reviewer Alex Pattinson’s website http://alexsfictionaddiction.tumblr.com Her review of The Goose Road is: here

 

 

When the urge to give up is overwhelming

Back in February this year, in the run up to the launch of The Goose Road, the work-in-progress stalled and I was seriously thinking about quitting the world of fiction. Three months later I’m up to my ears in historical research again, and carefully crafting the opening scenes of Book 2.

Why the change of heart?

Because in the intervening months I came face-to-face with the reality of not writing another novel – and ran away screaming.

I won’t go into details about the alternative career path I thought I could follow, beyond saying it would have been full-time for at least 18 months, then, potentially, given me some free time to write.

What I will admit is that on Day One of the initial training course I found myself in tears, because beneath the surface of the rational decision ‘to get a proper job’ there were demons who turned out to be worthy of Hieronymus Bosch.

These demons demanded more than time in return for a wage. My public behaviour and the sort of values I would have had to promote were also prescribed. When faced with such a loss of autonomy I couldn’t go through with it.

There were other, more practical factors at play as well, but standing at that cross-roads, with a yes/no decision to make, I saw more clearly than ever what a privilege it is to be able to express one’s worldview through fiction, and how much I’d regret turning my back on the opportunity to do it again.

So where next?

In terms of the work-in-progress it’s back to France, this time in 1944.

Continue reading the full post on Awfully Big Blog Adventure here.

Five Lessons To Combat Book Two Blues

The new work-in-progress isn’t progressing very quickly – which is hardly newsworthy. What Book Two ever went well?

In fact, in common with most debut friends of mine, this isn’t Book Two at all: rejected pitches litter my computer files, abandoned story ideas clog up my Creative Folder, and an entire 88K manuscript sits somewhere on an old hard drive.

Being fore-warned of the time it will take, the labour and love required, the commitment, the research, the inevitable disappointments, and (if I’m really, really lucky again) another long wait between completion and publication, isn’t the same thing as being fore-armed.

Frankly, part of me thinks it’s madness to start again.

Yet another part of me keeps whispering that what I now know about editing might (just might) make the whole business of producing another publishable manuscript less overwhelming second time around.

So what lessons has hindsight taught me?

First, write with passion and instinct initially. Over-plotting is a killer. But at the same time bear in mind that sooner or later we do have to answer the big questions: what is the heart of this story? What one scene/idea/moment would I save if I had to erase the rest? And what does that say about the story I think I’m trying to write.

A lot of writing gurus say the answer to that last question about the core of a story – its underlying meaning – only emerges at the end of a first full draft. I don’t know about that. I think I had a sense of what I was writing much earlier than that with The Goose Road. But it certainly did require time and distance from the first draft to look back with sufficient perspective to discover that a lot of what I thought I’d written wasn’t actually there.

How much time & distance? For me, it took a full six months, working pretty intensively on another story, one I murdered by over-plotting.

But I also believe it was the very act of over-plotting – of analysing “story” objectively – which brought into clear relief the formal structures that were missing from The Goose Road. Okay, I had an Inciting Incident (several, in fact!) but also great dollops of irrelevant junk, and no proper character arc. I rewrote Acts 1 and II almost completely over the course of the following six months.

So I guess Lesson One for me has been: write with passion, then somehow find the headspace to be ruthlessly objective, and the patience and self-belief to rip Draft One into pieces…

Continue reading on Awfully Big Blog Adventure where this first appeared on Feb 15, 2018 here

Writing rituals: a time and a place

My favourite writing spot is the kitchen table, with the glazed double kitchen door open to the garden, and our dog lazing on the step, watching birds on the feeders and our tom cat stalking them. It’s a central spot, a crossroads of work & life where the two can meet and sort out the day’s demands on my time and mental space.

Our kitchen is full of morning light, and also lit by ceiling lamps which imitate sunshine when it’s dull. Sitting at the table – which is from IKEA, clean, modern, waxed oak – I keep half an eye on the cat, and help the dog chase him off if his hunt looks set to be successful.

The kitchen table is also big enough for me to spread out the A2 sheets of paper I use for plotting. I weigh them down with coasters and coffee mugs, and sketch mind maps and constellations of characters. On the reverse side, I chart structural turning points: epiphanies, crises and climaxes, brainstorming options for each.

The Main Dramatic Question for a work-in-progress is written in the bottom left-hand corner, along with two core questions for my protagonist: what one thing will make them succeed? And what one thing could make them fail?

These three questions will be scored out and rewritten time and again during the course of writing a story, and if the paper plan becomes too messy, I start over. It’s a non-linear, iterative process. Fluid & flexible. Unlike typing, which is constricted & constraining.

When writing, either on the laptop or paper, I don’t have particular rituals or object fetishes, though I do love beautiful hard-back notebooks. Occasionally, I wonder if I rented an even more remote cottage without electricity for a month or two I might be able to get the bones of a story down on paper without the endless editing that has become a tiresome and time-consuming habit when working digitally.

Now, nearing midwinter, the kitchen table has been reclaimed for Christmas decorations and planned family dinners, and the kitchen door is shut against the north wind, which slams hail and sleet off Dartmoor against the house.

Banished upstairs to the office in the spare room, I can still hear the sparrows squabbling and the hoots of collared doves. I can even see the moor and a wider sky. But it’s not the same. This isn’t a place to day-dream; the spare room doesn’t feel like the heart of anything.

And the work-in-progress? Well, there’s always next year. Happy Christmas, everyone.

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society on December 15th, 2017.

 

 

 

 

Can’t afford a holiday? Try awe instead.

Midway through the school summer holidays, and feeling disgruntled about not being able to get away ourselves this year, New Scientist came to the rescue with an article about the psychological, emotional and creative value of experiencing awe.

Apparently, feeling a sense of awe breaks down our habitual patterns of thinking, reducing the expectations and assumptions which otherwise colour our view of the world, and thus enables us to see better what’s actually going on.

“Feeling awestruck can dissolve our very sense of self, bringing a host of benefits from lowering stress and boosting creativity to making us nicer people,” says Jo Marchant in Awesome Awe (New Scientist issue No 3136, July 29th, 2017).

Awe combines amazement, a hint of fear, and a sense of transcendence: that humbling knowledge of things beyond us.

Experiencing awe quietens regions of the brain normally occupied with self-interest and self-consciousness, increasing a sense of connection to others, and leading to more charitable thoughts and altruistic actions.

Astronauts are subject to awe so often when they look down on Earth from space that they’ve given it a specific name: the overview effect.

“Researchers have also reported increases in curiosity and creativity. In one study, after viewing images of Earth, volunteers came up with more original examples in tests, found greater interest in abstract painting and persisted longer on difficult puzzles, compared with controls,” Marchant says.

All of which reminds me of a conversation that creative writers often have with each other: what on earth should we do when inspiration dies?

Eating chocolate or cake are popular remedies. Taking hot baths or showers help a lot of us, too, along with walking the dog, meditation etc. etc.

The New Scientist article suggests that we’d be better off taking a daily dose of awe instead.

(Controlled doses of psychedelic drugs seem to work as well, but I’ll leave it up to you to check out what the article has to say about that.)

To benefit from awe, all we have to do is find out what triggers it in us, and do that as often as possible.

Maybe it’s taking time to absorb a sublime city skyline, or to lose ourselves in some great monument: a ruined temple of the Ancient World, a medieval cathedral or the Sky Tree in Tokyo.

Staring into the branches of an ancient oak tree does it for me, or encountering a wild animal unexpectedly, or sitting by the untamed sea or under a starry sky.

One thing I miss most about not going on holiday is watching the churning wake of our ferry as we pull away from land, and the crying of gulls, which always leaves me with a liberating sense of surrender to the journey and the wider world.

This loss of self, with its accompanying connection to others, may sound like mystical mumbo-jumbo or pseudo-religion, but if awe is hard-wired by evolution into our brains – if it’s a natural, creative, mind-altering buzz – why not harness its power year-round?

Alternatively, push the credit card to the max and go find some sunshine anyway.

This post first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site of the Scattered Authors’ Society, on July 15th, 2017.

 

On not feeling guilty about not writing

Confession: when my forehead is bleeding over a particularly stubborn scene, I find some of the motivational quotes which punctuate my Twitter feed deeply irritating. One that bugs me more than most is attributed to Ray Bradbury: ‘You only fail if you stop writing.’

Now I’ll bet £20 and a curry that, in context, this quote makes a good point. [A few years ago I watched a great hour-long speech by Ray Bradbury to US creative writing students – via a link in one of Candy Gourlay’s ever-informative blogs – in which he had a great many sensible things to say, including a recommendation to write one short story a week on the grounds that no one can write 52 rotten stories per year.]

But the mantra ‘You only fail if you stop writing’ is often taken to mean that we must keep plugging away regardless; we shouldn’t get up from our computers until we’ve reached a minimum daily word count; the muse must strike between nine-to-five or whatever time of day we’re chained to our desks, etc. etc.

All of which advice may well help many people keep going.

So why do I instinctively rebel?

In that time-honoured tradition of seeking evidence to support one’s intuitions, rather than challenging them with uncomfortable data, I’ve been on the hunt for reasons to justify my gut reaction.

The search bore fruit.

Ironically, the first clue came from an article entitled Inspiration for Slackers in the latest edition of Bath Spa University’s magazine. In it, Lucy Jolin quotes Nick Sorensen, Associate Dean at the Institute for Education, talking about the ‘reflective practitioner’ in education.

I recognised this theory of education from my days at Bath Spa on their fab MA in writing for young people. Reflective commentaries on different elements of our writing processes were an important part of that course, and this reminder made me realise that part of my hostility to “plugging away regardless” probably stemmed from this training.

As far as I understand it, reflective practice presupposes that being good at something requires practice. [Back to that famous 10K hours of practice to become an expert in your chosen field.] But it also says that even when we do something well, we won’t necessarily be able to repeat that success unless we know what’s so great about it, and how we achieved it. Ditto for things that don’t work.

Thus, unless we give ourselves the time and space to analyse our writing, we will remain at the mercy of inspiration, which (imo) is actually the route to becoming a slave to perspiration.

This small epiphany led to more general thoughts about the evolution of a book I’ve been working on (off and on) for more than four years, into which I’ve poured much that I love as well as things that I fear, moments that have shocked me, things that have bought great joy and others deep sadness.

In other words, it’s about life with all its ups and downs.

So I reckon another reason for my instinctive feeling that it’s a mistake to obsess endlessly over words in the lonely garrets of our minds is a belief that we need to live life whole-heartedly in order to write well.

Other people have, of course, made this point many times before, including Stephen King, who put it succinctly: ‘Life isn’t a support system for art. It’s the other way round.’

This blog first appeared on An Awfully Big Blog Adventure, the blogging site for the Scattered Authors’ Society, on March 15th, 2017.