Category Archives: Learning the Craft

Writing is from the Soul

 

p-d-james

The novelist, PD James

‘Part of our duty as writers is to do the work of honestly determining what matters to us and to try and write about that.’

Julia Cameron, ‘The Right to Write’.

I’ve always thought that writing comes from a place deep within, but this last few weeks has confirmed that view in a very deep way.  I’ve been working with my writing coach, Heidi Williamson, as I sort through ideas for my new fiction project.  I’m still not sure if it’s a novel or quite what it is.  I have characters and a setting, but I don’t really know what it is about.

And I’ve been going through something of a soul upheaval at the same time.

Like a huge game of Tetris, bits of me are moving about, realigning, making new connections.  I am understanding myself in a new way.  I am beginning to accept parts of myself I could never even acknowledge I had, so shameful to me they seemed.

All this is coming out onto the page.

Let me tell you a story:

Years ago, I went with my mother-in-law to an event held at the Museum of Natural History in Oxford.  Surrounded by trays of dead beetles, dinosaur bones and stuffed animals with scary glass eyes, we sat in an audience and listened to PD James and Colin Dexter talk about writing.  I think it may have been one of the most important experiences of my writing life.

Now, let me set this in context.  I had fallen in love with Oxford primarily because I had discovered Inspector Morse.  (Actually, I had fallen in love with John Thaw, but that’s another story!)  The romance of the city and its surrounding countryside connected with something inside me.  It sang to my soul.  I’d read all the Morse books published up until that point, some of them several times.

In contrast, I hadn’t read PD James at all.

And then the strangest thing happened.

I listened to Baroness James, this tiny little Marple of a woman, sit there and talk about her passion for stories, about how everyone has a story and how she loved listening to them, from her hairdresser to the train guard on the tube.  When she talked about writing, she blossomed, expanded.  A light shone from inside her, a light to which we were all drawn.

Then I listened to Colin Dexter talk about how he wrote the first Morse novel, ‘The Dead or Jericho’ as something of an intellectual exercise.  After all, he said, a detective novel is very much like a crossword, and I designed crosswords, so I wondered if I could do the same with a detective novel.

The contrasting lack of passion was chilling.

And I knew which kind of writer I wanted to be.

I shall always remember Dexter’s cold, dead, fish-eyes as he talked about plotting fiction in the same way as any problem must be solved.  I confess I conceived an intense dislike of the man at that moment.  It seemed to me he was subverting an art form, reducing it to something cold and empty and mundane.  Of course, there must have been more to him than that, because I’d read the novels, and I had seen the skill he had in painting character, but to me there seemed something lacking, a vacancy in his art, not least because he clearly didn’t regard it as art.

And beside him, PD James prickled quietly.  She was a woman with a passion, with a deep soul, a woman who wanted to explore the darkest depths of the psyche, a woman with a profound love for her fellow human beings.  It was obvious to me from her body language that she didn’t like Dexter’s clinical approach, that it irritated her.  I don’t blame her.  It irritated me too!

I have always written whatever my soul directed me to, taken the stories that popped into my head and followed them, followed my passions.  My themes have been the themes I have been struggling with in my own life.   I just never bothered to name them, to deliberately set out to find or understand them before.  Lately I have been doing just that.

I’m not the clinical type.  I need to write what I need to read.  I need to explore my own psychodrama on the page, use it as fuel for my work.  At this stage in my life, I need to know myself deeply, to uncover my own hidden depths, and to write about them.  To write them out of my body and mind, and away.

That is why this new work is taking so long to form.  And why I am deliberately allowing it time to form.

Usually, I start with the idea of a plot and gallop along, with characters being tugged behind.  If they get developed, so much the better, but often they end up at the denouement as thin as paper.

This time I am starting with the characters, with their souls, with their issues, their worries, their suffering, their joys.  I trust that they will tell me what their story will be.

This is not a crossword.  Neither is it a hundred metre dash.  It is a slow, steady, indefatigable hack through dense jungle.

Sometimes, you have to take it one day at a time.

Happy Creating,

EF

The Benefits of Giving Up

The Cumberbatch

Gratuitous Cumberbatch photo. Just because I felt like it!

Dear Reader,

I want to tell you about why its sometimes a really good idea to give up.

You weren’t expecting that, were you?

In my last post, I wrote about the folly of trying.  Of pushing ourselves beyond endurance, and as a result, being unable to achieve the things we want.

That post was an example of me writing my own permission slip.  That day, I took my own advice.  I gave up trying.  I spent a lot of time just lying around.  I felt terrible, so why do anything else? I simply surrendered to what my body was trying to tell me.  Which was, in essence, ‘STOP’.

So far, so good.

The next day, I woke up at 8.30am, earlier than I am normally able to do, and in addition, woke with a clear head.

I grabbed my laptop and opened it up.

And I wrote.

I wrote all day.

In between spells of writing, I stripped the bed, put clean sheets on, did three loads of washing, tidied the kitchen, ironed some fresh pillowcases, made some long overdue phonecalls, and cooked a lovely supper for Husband and myself. I got so much done!

By close of play, i.e.11pm, I had written (get this) 6470 words.  Thats 27 pages.

The most I have ever written in one day.

(Round of applause, please.)

And all because I had given myself some much-needed space.

This is why you must learn to stop.  Yes, it is important to write every day.  Little and often is imperative.  Regular practise for any art form is necessary.

And there will be days when you sit down at your desk or in your studio and think:  ‘I really don’t want to do this today.’  And when you start, the brush strokes will be ugly or the words will come out like lumps of lead.  And then you will get going and things will flow and it will be alright.  (In fact it will be better than alright.  Because all the pain and depression you may have been struggling with will fly away, and creating will heal you.)  That is the point of any practise.

I am not saying you should only write when you feel like it.

What I am saying is that you must recognise that there are some days when your body is leeched to a husk, when your brain is too full or too empty to do anything but be.  Those are the days when you need to be gentle with yourself.  To put away the expectations.  And you will know those days.  The days of crisis.  The days when Life just steps in and pulls the carpet from under you.

If, like me, you live with chronic illness, working out which those days are becomes a little harder.  After 17 years, I am getting better at it, but I’m still not great.

The important thing to remember is that when you release the pressure on yourself, the result is often magic.

Its very Zen to say: let go of perfectionism, let go of expectations, but its easier said than done.  We all carry expectations from society, our upbringing, our peers and ourselves.  Letting them go is a daily practise in itself.  I am reminded however of an old saying I once heard:

“Let go, and Let God.”

Once we stop trying, once we stop tensing up and forcing things, the creativity flows through us freely onto the page or the canvas or the keyboard.  When we are free to make crap art, we learn.  And invariably, in my experience at least, when we give ourselves permission to make crap, what comes out is pure gold.

So here I am, in the aftermath of this great day of writing, assessing what I have learnt, what I can take with me from this experience.  I don’t know if what I wrote yesterday was gold or dross.  Chances are it will be about 50/50.  I don’t really care.  To be frank, it was fun.  It was an enormous relief just to spread my wings and fly without judging myself at all.

And I’m looking forward to doing it again just as soon as I can.

Happy creating,

EF

 

Are You Enjoying The Journey?

Are you enjoying the journey?

Are you enjoying the journey?

My niece has just got into drama school. After a long spell when she was not acting, she turned up at the audition feeling rusty and nervous. Afterwards she told me that doing the audition reminded her of just how much she enjoys acting.

She always laughs about how she will buy me a car ‘when she is rich and famous’, and its true, she does want to be famous, but only because it will allow her to get better roles. Her heroines are not the Hollywood starlets who are famous for being pretty (not that she isn’t pretty), but actresses who are famous for excellence – Emma Thompson, Harriet Walter, Fiona Shaw.

This made me think about the chapter in Ann Lammott’s seminal book about writing, ‘Bird by Bird’, in which she talks about those students in her writing classes who are only interested in learning how to get published. Getting published is only a minute fraction of a writer’s life. If you are only interested in that, why go through the long, hard slog of writing a novel in the first place?

You have to like writing. You have to like the process.

There is no point in setting out to be a great painter if you hate getting your hands mucky with paint.

There is no point in applying to drama school because you want to get famous, not because you want to act.

If you do either, you are surely going to spend a great deal of time being very miserable indeed.

When you decide to dedicate yourself to an art form, – or any activity, for that matter – be sure why you are doing it. There are a damn site easier and more reliable ways of getting rich and famous than writing a novel. You’d be much better off buying a lottery ticket or robbing a bank (not that I would condone the latter of course!).

Be creative through a medium that you love, because you love doing it.

Fame and riches may or may not follow, but one thing you can be sure of is that you won’t be miserable while you are waiting for it. You’ll be having a nice life. And lots of fun. Which is really the whole point, isn’t it?

Happy Creating,

EF

Which Notebook?

My old writers notebook

My old writers notebook

I’ve been trying to find the best way to keep a writing notebook for the last year. And by ‘right’, I don’t mean correct, I mean the system that works best for me.

I always used to keep all my notes in an A4 ringbound PukkaPad notebook, the hardback kind. I loved it. There was plenty of room on the big pages, and PukkaPad’s paper is beautifully smooth and takes ink perfectly. Their products are especially good for Morning Pages, because you can write quickly and smoothly on them.

This was fine as far as it went, but the book was too big to carry around with me easily, which meant that I tended only used it at my desk. And that meant I wasn’t noting down all the ideas I had, just the few I had when I was thinking about it. Which meant I was always trying to remember what I had thought about. And that meant, of course, that 75% of the ideas I had went AWOL. What a waste.

(I did have a baby moleskine at one point. It just felt like clutter in my handbag and I rarely used it.)

Last September, I decided I was going to get serious about my writing practise, and that meant reflecting on my notebooking habits. This was not a flattering experience.

I restarted with a cheap hardback A5 notebook, because it had to be sturdy to withstand being knocked about in my handbag. I just bought the cheapest I could find because I figured it was an experiment, and it didn’t have to be perfect. Plus, if it was too nice, I wouldn’t use it.

(That’s a trap I’ve fallen into before. Its easy to feel intimidated by a fancy notebook to the point where you can’t bring yourself to write in it, because you feel anything you do write has to be perfect. It’s a creative disaster.)

So decorated the cover so it looked like a more expensive one I was coveting at the time, and away I went.

It was really hard at first, making sure I scribbled down the thoughts I had when I had them, not trying to save them up. I added quotes I came across, stories I heard on the bus or on the radio, and took notes in book talks I went to. And I quickly filled up my scrappy little book.

And once it was full, I forgot about it.

So when I got the bug again, deciding to renew my commitment to my work, I made the mistake of going off to gorge myself on the goodies at Staples. Gods, I love Staples!

 

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples.  The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

The ARC discbound notebook system from Staples. The one on the left is a cover I made myself.

And there I fell in love with the ARC discbound system. I came home with a beautiful leatherbound A5 notebook. And it is gorgeous. You have no idea. And because its discbound, I decided I would combine my notebooking with a blog planner. I printed out pages and punched then and fitted them in and moved them about. And my lovely ARC planner became so big and heavy that I couldn’t get it in my handbag. Which rather defeated the object. And the thing with the lovely leather binding is that you can’t just throw the book in the back of the drawer to await later pillaging for ideas. You feel duty-bound to keep using it. So you have to take the contents out, and then what do you do with them?

So the ARC notebook, no matter how delectable, was a notebooking disaster.

But I learnt from my failure. I now knew I needed the following:

  • An A5 notebook to fit in my handbag.
  • A pen loop would be useful.
  • Nothing too fancy, or I won’t write in it.
  • Nice paper is an incentive.
  • A sturdy binding to withstand handbag battery

So back to Staples I went.

And this time I came home with the A5 version of the Oxford notebook. It has a stiff plastic cover and is spiral bound, which means I can fold it flat over easily. Its got lovely paper. I can tuck a biro into the spiral binding and it acts as a pen loop. It is satisfyingly thick but the smallish size means I can fill it quickly, which pleases me and makes me feel like I’m making progress.

And I am using it. Every day. Filling it with thoughts and ideas and potential stories and snippets and all kinds of goodies that I know I can rummage through in future. I’m even using it to write bits of stories and dialogue for my fanfics, and bits of diary-like reflection on the writing process for my novel.

People, its working!

It goes with me everywhere, my little friend. And it is still evolving. I could probably write another post along the same lines as this one in six months’ time, and I’ll probably tell you something completely different. I think the notebooking requirements you have change with you as you go on in the craft. But for me, this is where I am now, and I think I have finally found a way to record my brain on paper in a meaningful and useful way.

I encourage you to explore using a writers notebook if you write, but to do it, too if you pursue any other kind of creative art. A sketchbook for an artist fulfils the same function. It allows you to explore your creative interior, push the boundaries of your ideas. Its useful to keep a little notebook in your pocket or bag just to scribble down random ideas and thoughts you have, regardless of what art you do.

Be gentle with yourself as you find out what works best for you. From little cardboard-bound exercise books to luxurious Paperblanks, there will be something that fits your life. Think about your lifestyle and what your requirements are. I recommend that you start cheap so you feel like you can make mistakes. There is no wrong or right. Its just what works best for you. You just have to find it.

If you want a beginners guide to keeping a writers notebook, click here.

I’ll no doubt have lots more to say on the subject in coming posts.

Happy creating, EF

How Scrivener Kicked My Butt into Enlightenment

People have been raving about Scrivener to me for ages, and I’ve been saying yeah, yeah, eventually. And then wrestling with Word for my novels, and spreadsheets for my research data. Given that I am hopeless at spreadsheets, you can just imagine how time-consuming that can be. Anyway, recently, my fanfic pal Chasingriver demonstrated to me conclusively that this was a programme I couldn’t live without.

You know, I hate it when she’s right.

It was the corkboard function that really sold me. Mainly because I’d spent the previous week working out how I could attach all the little index cards (each indicating a scene) which I had accumulated for my current project to my study wall without damaging the plaster with blu-tak. Once I’d downloaded Scrivener, it was a case of YAY! No more blu-tak! No more holes in the paintwork!

With Scrivener, you can put all your little index cards on the screen, and move them about to change the order as you like, just as you would with the real thing. The good part, though, is that while you can’t carry your entire study wall along to the library with you when you want to work there, you can with Scrivener.

(Did I mention that I’m not getting paid to say this about Scrivener, just in case you were wondering?)

Anyway, yesterday I sat down in front of the offending, doomed wall, and started to copy out those little index cards into my Project folder. Away I went. I was having a lovely time. Type type, tap tap.

You’ve already guessed there is going to a BUT here, haven’t you?

Once I’d put in all my index-card scenes, I could see the plot I’d teased out as a whole. Or should I say HOLE. Because it was full of them. Holier than Righteous, as we used to say about my brother’s vests.

Now, of course this is a good thing. It is better to find out your plot is lacier than a wedding dress before you get down to churning out 80,000 words, rather than after. Of course it is.

Cue typical writers confidence wobble.

I crashed and burned.

Help! What have I got myself into? I thought I had a novel with a mostly sorted plot, and now I find there is mountains more work to do than I thought. Oh, oh, I am hopeless, my work is superficial, crap, lacking in psychological depth, etc. etc. You know the routine, because I’ll bet you’ve done it yourself at 3am enough times.

Don’t worry, I’ve got a grip on myself now. But it was a bit scary there for a while.

What the marvels of Scrivener have done is to make me see how I can get to grips with my project in a way I never have before. I have always been a ‘flying by the seat of my pants’ sort of writer, with plots that evolved organically as I went along. I’ve written to find the plots, rather than establishing them first. Much the same goes for character. I’ve done a bit of character work before on my novels, but most of the time, I’ve just sat down and written the damn thing, and kept writing till it felt done.

Which is why I could never get a handle on my books as whole, holistic entities, and why I always have such horrible trouble editing them.

You can’t break a stream-of-consciousness-written novel down into individual component parts in order to see if it makes logical sense, or to cut and paste bits around. Its too interwoven.

Cue HUGE AHA! moment.

Back in the dim and distant past, when I was studying systems analysis and design, I was taught that the way you design a system is to break it down into its individual constituent parts, each part serving a specific function and with a specified input, actors, outcome or output. But I never thought that you could view a novel this way, even though I was taught to look at every scene in my books, and ask what function it was there for, and whether it served that purpose. If it doesn’t, you have to cut it, say the gurus, with systems design and with novel editing.   Kill your darlings, they say, but I never could because I couldn’t see the whole, and I couldn’t see the individual functions.

What I think I am trying to say is that in two days, using Scrivener has revolutionised the way I conceptualise a writing project. It is scary, but it is also enormously liberating. I get it now, I really do. After years of struggling over how to plan, I now see it.

Thank you, Scrivener. (And Chasingriver, of course.)

Of course, I can also now see that I have a vast amount of work to do. But the nice thing about that is that I can also see how to break it down into little, manageable component tasks. Eating the elephant, as they say. I’ll let you know how I am getting on.

In the meantime, take a look at Scrivener, if you haven’t already.

Happy Creating,

EF

Books about Writing

 

Bookshelf

My shelves of books about writing.

I’ve made a big decision.

No, not that one.

I’ve decided not to buy any more books about how to write for two months.

Now you may not think that’s such a hard task, but I am the sort of person who likes to buy a book about a subject in lieu of actually doing it. I’m a big one for research. If I’m going to take up some activity, say, crochet for instance, then I am the one who will chug down to the library and take out all known books on crochet, in order to find out everything I need to know about the subject. For two days I read avidly and become an armchair expert, without even touching a ball of wool. And then I lose interest and the books gather dust on the coffee table until they have to be taken back to the library before I get fined, no crochet having ever been done.

I’m the same with books about writing.

Once every three or four months, or so, I resolve ‘to take my work more seriously’. This usually involves going in to work with my husband, who is a University lecturer, and settling down in the campus library to tap away on laptop undisturbed. (Never mind the fact that I really struggle to visualise and write in that library, but there you are!)

To get to the library, I have to walk past a bookshop.

(If you love books, you just know where this is going to end, don’t you?)

Add to this the fact that this University runs one of the first, and still best, courses in Creative Writing in the world, whose alumni include the likes of Dame Hilary Mantel, Kazuo Ishiguro and Ian McEwan. You can imagine how good the bookshop’s section of writing is.

Let me tell you, it is hell to walk past.

This is the reason why the bookshelf beside my desk is so crammed with ‘How to Write’ books. I buy a book every time I decide to ‘get serious’, because of course, buying a book is a prerequisite of ‘getting serious’. I’ll read a few chapters. And then I get bored/move on/get ill/realise its shortcomings/decide I want to take up crochet instead etc. So now I have a bookshelf full of books about writing and how to write, many of which are very, very good, dozens of which come highly recommended by friends and in other books about writing, and almost none of which I have ever read cover to cover.

Just call me a butterfly.

Today is another of those ‘I’m going to get serious’ days. Today I am not going to buy a book.

This is partly because I am completely broke, and saving up for a new pair of spectacles because the ones I have got are close to useless and I’m fed up of having to take my glasses off in order to read.

But mostly because its because I need not to read about writing and how to write, but to actually DO it.

You can’t be a writer unless you actually write. And when you write, you learn far more about writing than you ever could from a book.

Books about writing are great. Don’t get me wrong. I’ve got a lot out of them. But there comes a time when you have to leave them alone and learn by doing.

I’ll let you know whether I stick to my guns or not, though I have to say I don’t think my groaning bookcase can survive even one more purchase!

Happy Creating,

EF

Choosing the Next Thing

go away bagI came back from Scotland with a marked desire to embark on a big project.  I suppose this isn’t something new, but is a desire I have been nurturing for a while.  It represents the need to get away from writing what are essentially someone else’s characters, and write my own.

I need something to get my teeth into, a full length novel to help me get my confidence in my ability to actually write something BIG back.  Its been a long time since I finished anything substantial in terms of original work, and I need this.

I was reading this article by justine Musk, in which she talks about some writing advice she was given by a teacher:

“Will writing this book change your life?” the teacher asked me. “If the answer is no, then that’s not your real baby.”

If we write our own psychodramas, if we write our way to self=knowledge, then I need something that reflects the place where I am in my life at the moment.  A novel that parallels my own journey.

I sat down with my notebook and wrote about the four projects I could choose from:  two Victorian novels, one Evenlode book, and one fantasy story.  Then I picked one of the Victorian novels and tried to write a little bit in the voice of the protagonist, mainly because I am struggling with making her a three-dimensional character, which is what has stymied progress so far.  And suddenly, everything made sense.

This novel is about being who you truly, authentically are.

And that is exactly where I am in life.  I am trying to own and be who I really am.

So in order to make the protagonist realistic, all I have to do is write her as me.  My voice, my problem, my reactions and interests.  Its not the way you are supposed to write a character, but it is a way into creating her in a believable way.  This way I can explore her voice and see the story from her point of view.  This pretty much buggers up everything I’ve previously written for this project, because its all third person, and varies the voices through each of the three main characters.  But that approach didn’t gel, which is why it didn’t get any further.  Now maybe I can find a way in.

And then all I have to do is to stick with it until its done.

I have no idea whether this will work.  Maybe this time next year I will have completed another Evenlode novel instead.  You never know.  What I don’t want is to still have four unfinished works in the pipeline by then.  I need to finish something.  So I’m going to ride this wild donkey side saddle, and see where it takes me.

Wish me luck,

Happy Creating,

EF.