It’s depressing as both an editor and a writer when I hear writers (or more usually aspiring writers) saying they don’t read. Getting books out into the world is difficult. It’s a huge amount of work for both publishers and writers and the only way it’s possible is if there are people out there who read. If you are a writer who doesn’t read the work of others, what would make you imagine that others would want to read your book?
Writers have to read:
1. Because reading is your world
Imagine a chef who hates to eat, an artist who’s never been to a gallery. It’s not credible — neither is a writer who doesn’t read.
2. Influence is good
Sometimes writers tell me they don’t read because they don’t want to influence their work. This is the height of arrogance and flawed thinking. No one creates ex nihilo. No one is that original. Of course you shouldn’t be copying others or never finding your own voice, but what has gone before you is a treasure trove. Tradition and inspiration are all around you in books. You can learn structure, technique and so much more by reading. We become innovative by building on the past, not by writing it off.
3. For the love of language
Great writers are those who have found wonderful ways to use language Their language might be supple or taut and honed. It might be rich or lyrical. It might be rhythmic or urgent. You will discover an infinite kaleidoscope of vocabulary and style in the pages of books written by others.
4. To encourage imagination
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Creativity is deep, attentive work. Whether you are solving a maths problem or painting a picture, writing elegant code or a novel, you have to be attentive, focussed and in flow. You need to be in an optimal peak state to create and that means setting aside the distractions for key periods.
This isn’t easy. There are so many things clamouring for our attention, but if we don’t find a way to step back, creativity will be one of the many casualties. Among the attention-grabbers that we need to take breaks from are:
Long bouts of social media or aimless internet surfing can leave us feeling ragged. We end up with our thoughts fractured and innovative thinking out of reach.
There’s no doubt that technology has changed our lives and, in many ways, for the better. The access to like minds across the planet, the ability to communicate across distances, the tools for writing, research and so much more, can be mind-expanding. But there is also the anxiety that the smarter out phones get, the dumber we become. There are many people who check their phones 85 times an hour, that’s more than once a minute. How do they get anything done?
Why this knee-jerk checking? It might signal a population unable to cope with ‘doing nothing’ for short (or longer periods) or uneasy with being alone with their own thoughts. It might also be that sometimes our devices deliver a reward. We find a great article, get news of a book deal. So we check in case we’re missing something. As Sharon Begley puts it:
Such low-cost, occasionally high-reward activities are catnip to the brain.
People who are compulsive about checking phones can feel enormous unease if prevented from doing so. Psychologist Alejandro Lleras such phone use as a ‘security-blanket’ staving off anxiety. An Illinois study noted that 70% of the group studied used texting as a way to disengage from stressful situations.
The internet also encourages a fear of missing out (FOMO). Cut off, people in various studies describe their state as anxious, ansty, miserable, jittery… For some, not being online is tantamount to not existing. The existential rage against obliteration is a strong human compulsion. No wonder people are distraught at the thought of being ‘cut off’. The online life taps into the human psyche.
But the cost is that we do miss something. We miss the ability to be alone with our thoughts. We miss focussing on someone who is with us in person. We miss building up a deliberate practice that builds our skills with deep work.
The practice of always checking together with myth of multitasking takes away our focus. It’s may not be that attention spans are falling per se, but that trying to multitask destroys this focus. Our brains receive thousand of stimuli and the ability to sift for what’s important and ignore the distractions is vital.
When we try to attend to a stimuli the brain has to move that piece of information to the frontal cortex. If we are doing three things at once, the constant switching (it isn’t multitasking) takes time and leaves us feeling fragmented and fuzzy-minded.
Our attention is quite capable of holding up. Think of losing yourself in a great novel or film. Think of the total absorption of a parent of a new baby. But we can’t sustain focus in the face of a thousand distractions or when our attention is being divided.
Sometimes we have to switch off social media, messages, calls, apps … to switch on the creative flow.
If your work and your art are of a piece there’s less conflict, but many of us do one thing to hold body and soul together and pursue our art in addition. You might love your work, as I do, but that doesn’t mean you want to be available to it at all hours seven days a week. …
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As I write I’m sitting in a cottage in North Wales looking out on a sunlit winter hillside. The trees are bare, bracken a deep swathe of rust across the vivid green. The silence is deep and the distractions few.
I’ve been working with a group of writers who I or one of our Cinnamon Press authors has mentored over the last year. This is the only slot in the three day intensive timetable that I have some down time. There rest is writing workshops, one-to-one sessions, cooking for the group, evenings reading back work with them.
But the energy here has been extraordinary and I’ve been jotting down ideas for new blog posts or journalling in every gap or early in the morning.
I’ve got another of these writing residentials at the end of next week and I expect it to be as intense and exhausting. I also expect it to be as creative, energising and idea-filled.
Bringing together a group of people who’ve invested in their writing and who are passionate and committed to their craft is part of the magic. The buzz of ideas is thrilling.
And we’ve enhanced this by getting people away from their normal environments. When we shift environments so many creative things happen. …
Dear List Members
I’m currently putting some effort into building up a presence on the blogging platform, Medium. I’m hoping to use this later down the line to deliver writing courses and mentoring and building my way towards this.
If you have a a few minutes to read on with the post above please click here. The posts on Medium t will be out every Tuesday and Friday and this is the latest.
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Take a scrap of paper and answer that question — don’t think about it too much, simply respond — Why do you write?
There are so many reasons: to bear witness; to tell stories; for the trance; because you have to… If you have ‘to get rich’ you might be in the wrong place (not that it can’t happen, but generally money is better as an offshoot than a direct aim). In short, there are many great reasons for writing.
Asked by Geoff Dyer what he saw as the ‘job of his life’ John Berger said”
Perhaps I am like all people who tell stories — storytellers lose their identity and are open to the lives of other people. Maybe when you look at their entire output you can see something that really belongs to that one person. But at any one moment it is difficult to see what the job of your life is because you are so aware of what you are lending yourself to. This is perhaps why I use the term “being a witness.” One is witness of others but not of oneself.
For Berger, this sense of witnessing involves total immersion and openness to other people and to other places.
Finding the rapture:
In Our Faces, Our Hearts, Brief as Photos, Berger describes one of those luminous moments when an ordinary place takes on an otherworldly quality:
Everything was shifting. The three pear trees, their hillock, the other side of the valley, the harvested fields, the forests. The mountains were higher, every tree and field nearer. Everything visible approached me. Rather, everything approached the place where I had been, for I was no longer in that place. I was everywhere, as much in the forest across the valley as in the dead pear tree, as much on the face of the mountain as in the field where I was raking hay.
When we write, we’re opening ourselves up in an extraordinary way. Writing takes us into another space. As Virginia Woolf described it:
I walk making up phrases; sit, contriving scenes; am in short in the
thick of the greatest rapture known to me.
The question for many writers is how to get to the ‘rapture’ without having to go by way of resistance. Some lucky people never have a problem but many will recognise this from Vladimir Nabokov:
Just when the author sits down to write, ‘the monster of grim commonsense’ will lumber up the steps to whine that the book is not for the general public, that the book will never — And right then, just before it blurts out the words,– commonsense must be shot dead.
So begin by shooting common sense dead and taking your imaginations off-guard.
The painter Paula Rego pointed out the importance of the ‘play’ element in her work. In writing we can benefit from ‘playing with language’, which permits us to relax our hold on imagination and memory. It lessens the pressure to produce a finished piece and we are more likely to catch that ‘peripheral vision’. This sense of play can also prevent the personal critic in our head from intervening, Too often this voice sits on out shoulder, frowning and muttering .
Chance and ‘the random’ take us to unpredictable places and enable different narratives. Working with chance allows the writer to challenge her unconscious assumptions about what a piece of writing ‘should be’. It also challenges the reader’s unconscious assumptions. Chance leads to surprise, revelation, the challenge of paradox and the springs of the imagination. It facilitates ways of finding subject, atmosphere and voice, and of realising the imaginative into life. Using random prompts helps to break down the chaos of possibility.
Think about these prompts and write — keep going even if you are writing the same sentence over and over or what seems to be nonsense.
She watches her sleep …
She remembers feet on white sand …
How long ago was it that …
Today they climb to the top …
sweat snakes down her face, she is paler with each second …
Even when we find the right headspace, the next question will be about the kind of writing you want to do. Writing involves making a lot of decisions…
Making it real
Understand that you can have in your writing no qualities which you do not honestly entertain in yourself.
Walt Whitman in his journal.
The adage ‘write what you know’ is often too simplistic. Not all writing is confessional or springs from the life we’ve lived. Cormac McCarthy hasn’t lived in early twentieth century America or a post-apocalyptic society. Nonetheless, he writes about both. He write as convincingly as Hemingway writes about war, which he did live through. Both are writing what they ‘know’, in the sense that the work is authentic. It reflects their passions, their values, the way they perceive and relate to the world.
If we care about what we are writing, then we owe it to the characters and places we are witnessing to, to ensure the writing is as polished as possible. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
This is exactly what happens in the description in chapter 2 of The Great Gatsby of a poverty stricken urban area:
This is a valley of ashes — a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of ash-grey men, who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of grey cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-grey men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight. … The valley of ashes is bounded on one side by a small foul river, and, when the drawbridge is up to let barges through, the passengers on waiting trains can stare at the dismal scene for as long as half an hour.
Similarly, in my novel, This is the End of the Story the politics, weather, music are major influences that build the picture of a certain kind of reality.
Writing about Place
Even if you are working from the mind’s eye, you must keep your senses open — observe, be precise.
Chekhov puts it like this:
Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.. ur writing will become: precise, sensory and take the reader into the moment we are evoking.
We write one true sentence and then the next true sentence. Every detail counts.
Be wary of cluttering your writing with adjectives and adverbs. Hone them back — use them with care and precision. And cut out the qualifiers — kind of, sort of, just, very, really — they do no work — somehow, suddenly… follow close behind — nothing happens ‘somehow’.
People come in context — think of a grandmother or favourite aunt — you will think of them in a place, most likely. Places tell us about character — Gatsby’s ridiculous ice-cream coloured mansion. Don’t do the lazy announcement thing — ‘Manchester, 1977, a dark and gloomy night in a terraced house…’
Try this exercise about a place that reflects a person. You might not mention the person at all in the writing and they don’t need to make an appearance. The person can be real or fictional:
First choose your person. Make a few notes about them, think of the type of place that would reflect that character — it might be a whole house or a room, it might be a tent or an open field, a workplace or a boat…
Now describe the place in the present tense — make the description precise and visual, but don’t forget the other senses.
Make every line like a photographic frame — remember, ‘Don’t tell me the moon is shining, show me the glint of light on broken glass.’
Keep in mind that in writing about your place, you are writing about something you are not saying directly about your character, but you are pointing to.
Cormac McCarthy’s opening of Suttree is a fantastic example.
Dear friend now in the dusty clockless hours of the town when the streets lie black and steaming in the wake of the watertrucks and now when the drunk and the homeless have washed up in the lee of walls in alleys or abandoned lots and cats go forth highshouldered and lean in the grim perimeters about, now in these sootblacked brick or cobbled corridors where lightwire shadows make a gothic harp of cellar doors no soul shall walk save you.
Get into the habit of making notes about places and make every sense work overtime so that you begin to build place portraits the way a painter might. Every detail counts. You won’t use them all, but you’ll start writing more authentic settings. Put your characters into them to see how they react there, see where they fit and where they don’t fit.
Place as a Reflection of Character
Writing about place is powerful because places reflect character. At its most acute the theory of pathetic fallacy gives emotions to place and weather, as we see in Shakespeare’s King Lear:
Blow, winds, and crack your cheeks! Rage, blow! You cataracts and hurricanes, spout Till you have drenched our steeples, drowned the cocks! You sulfurous and thought-executing fires, Vaunt-couriers of oak-cleaving thunderbolts, Singe my white head! And thou, all-shaking thunder, Smite flat the thick rotundity o’ th’ world, Crack nature’s molds, all germens spill at once That make ingrateful man!
Similarly, the opening of Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist features a violent rain storm that represents the dysfunction in the lives of Sarah and Macon.
When we write about places, it isn’t mere adornment — it isn’t only about adding description. The places in which we set our stories help to define our characters and events. A good sense of place makes a story real and authentic.
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Over the last few weeks I’ve gone through draft five of A Remedy for All Things. This draft was a slow, meticulous read through looking for the tiniest hint of cliché, the odd rogue space, the distant scent of an inconsistency, typos, missing commas, over-writing and anything that could in any way snag. I was, as always, amazed at how much I found, given how many times I’ve read the manuscript already, but I’m also certain that there will still be errors, some of them so glaring that by this stage I have no chance of seeing them. I’m far too close to the narrative now. I feel in my bones that that people I invented lived real lives, perhaps because one of them is a fictionalised version of a historic character, whilst another lived a life that many endured in that particular political context. Or perhaps because reality is in any case such a disputed notion that in writing the trance becomes where we live.
And then it ends, at least for a while. There will be another draft, but not until a thorough and trusted reader has gone over this draft to root out all those snags and errors that I can’t see for myself. So I’m in that strange period of hiatus. It feels itchy. The spell has been broken and for a while I have nothing to write; a restless, unnerving gap, but an essential one.
Kafka famously had a sign over his desk that simply said, ‘Wait’. It’s not advice that writers often want to hear. We’re more liable to be keen to get on, keen to finish, keen to find a publisher, keen to … We don’t live in a patient world, but a slow writing movement might be as timely as the slow food movement. Waiting, sending the manuscript off to be commented on and positively critiqued, or just putting the file away for a period of time, has all kinds of benefits. It ensures that the glitches are more likely to be caught and the final draft will be one that is as polished as possible. And it pulls us out of the trance so that the next time we encounter the manuscript we’re not so emotionally involved with the characters whose lives had started to invade our dreams.
Feeling creatively restless is both uncomfortable and inspiring. On the other side will be the final stages of the second book in the trilogy and the beginnings of the third. To allow the new ideas to flourish there has to be some time for germination, for the loamy underground imaginative processes to push towards the surface. While that’s happening it’s essential to WAIT.
I’m endlessly fascinated by how various writing process can be between one writer and the next, but however idiosyncratic these processes might be there are certain stages that have to be negotiated. It has to begin with ideas. For me, these often come from dreams or from the trance-like state that walking can induce – the link between walking and writing, the process of flaneurs like Baudelaire and Benjamin makes complete sense to me. These ideas begin to assume more and more shape – notes and jottings, bits of research, character sketches, hopes of something amazing and doubts that it is ever going to take shape.
At this stage, some of it starts to form. Maybe you write a timeline. Perhaps you write chapter summaries. You might be someone who writes detailed character sketches or even has a list of questions to ask each character. For me, it’s all about research at this stage. I look up the weather of the time and place I’m writing about. I research the politics, the social climate, the architecture of the streets, the landscape, the local food, historical characters who might turn up in the novel. Before beginning to write This is the End of the Story I read several academic tomes on Don Quixote and several novels that has a Quixotic structure. For the current novel, A Remedy for All Things, I read everything I can find about Attila and all of his poetry that’s in English translation. I also unearthed several interviews with Attila’s family members and with the sculptor who made the most famous statue of him. Then I read several books about the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and as much as I could find about Budapest in the early 90s. From these copious notes some rough sketches of actual story began to be written and the opening, which had been in my head since the first dreams of my new protagonist, Selene.
From the mass of dreams, ideas, characters, places and research notes, something new has to emerge. Writing This is the End of the Story, I had several vivid incidents that needed to be written. I had them clearly in my head so I didn’t outline anything and I didn’t think about what order to write them in. Each piece emerged and only later did I order and re-order and then go over the whole to make sure the way they fitted together was consistent, even though the narrative was non-linear.
Writing A Remedy for All Things has been completely different. I’m juggling three characters each in different time periods – 1937, 1959 (with flash backs to 1952-9) and 1993. What unites them is that the two main characters, Catherine (Cassie from This is the End of the Story) and Selene are dreaming each other’s lives on successive days in November to early December, days that were the last 28 of Attila József’s life. So the dates impose an essential framework on what would otherwise be a chaotic narrative and each date has two short chapters – one in 1993, one in 1959. With this framework it seemed sensible to outline early so I wrote summaries of each chapter and this enabled me to wrangle a sprawling plot into something manageable and accessible. I don’t believe there is a one size fits all way to write a novel, but certain stories let us know what they need – form and content begin to match if we attend to the material we’re working with.
In this case, with an outline in place, I wrote a first full draft. It was full of typos and inconsistencies. It was too obviously researched at some points (it’s skeleton showing through its skin), but lacking in detail at others. The prose was clunky and some of the chapters were little more than bridging passages, but I had a whole novel. It was time to get a clearer vision of what I might be working towards and to do that demanded that I stop for a while.
With the constant programme editing, events to organise for Cinnamon Press and admin to keep the press running, taking time off from my own writing isn’t difficult. Sometimes it’s hard to find the time to write at all, which is why having writing blocks courtesy of the Arts Council, has been such a blessing with this novel. But whether we have scraps of time or luxurious amounts of it, there are interludes when we need to stop and stand back. Time to get some distance from the first intensely immersive process. Time to dream and wander again. For a week or a month or however long you need (but not so long that it becomes remote from you), let it rest. Don’t read it and don’t let anyone else read it. It’s too early in the process and too vulnerable to being derailed at this stage. (If you have a trusted reader or a mentor, bounce ideas off them, talk in broad terms, get ideas about overall process, get encouragement and support, but don’t second guess the fragile first draft just yet).
I did keep reading everything I could find about Budapest in the right periods while I was letting the first draft settle. And I also had fascinating conversations about the place and events, about Attila József’s poetry and about some of the bigger ideas I was exploring, but I didn’t open the files.
I started the second draft once I knew I was going to be able to visit Budapest to hone the research and really bring the book to life. My aim was to revise the narrative so that any thin passages were fleshed out, so that the research was carried by story, dialogue and character, rather than cluttering the surface. I wanted to improve the prose, kill any darlings, rid the story of inconsistencies, smooth the pacing and keep the conflicts tense. The second draft is a good point to address any structural issues, and for me a key issue was how to use particular objects that revealed connections not only in this novel, but also pointed back to the first novel and potentially forward to the next, For Hope is Always Born.
When I finished the second draft, not long after arriving in Budapest, I immediately went back to the beginning and started editing again. The third draft saw a mixture of changes. Having gone through the structural issues I could concentrate on finer details. But, being in the place where the novel is set and with access to generous people who’d lived through some of what I was writing about and knew Attila Joszef’s work so much more deeply in its original language, also meant I could revisit some of the key ideas. In the third draft I completely changed my mind about one of the most pivotal events of the book, thanks to a conversation with László Kúnos of Corvina Publishers. And I was able to add details about József’s life and about the places that Selene would have known only because I was able to visit important museums and sites and talk to people.
The fourth draft was a thorough edit of all of this, again reading for consistency as well as for every stray comma, typo or missing word. Drafts two, three and four came hard on the heels of each other because I had an intense time set aside to work in Hungary, but there were breaks, even if just for a day, and lots of conversations, as well as long walks and plenty more dreams to fuel the process.
And then I came home, got back into work and didn’t look at the manuscript for several weeks. Another rest is no bad thing and having worked on redrafting, editing and editing again, it was useful to get some distance. The hardest work to see objectively is always our own. I can spot tics and flaws in other people’s writing that I’m oblivious to in my own. If you get to this stage and want another view on the whole thing now is a good time to hand over to a trusted reader or work with mentor.
After all of this, it’s time to hone. This is where I am now – going over every chapter very slowly, realising that even in a fifth draft, there are typos, missing punctuation, phrases that don’t quite work, some glaring bits of overwriting. I’m in the last stages of honing, maybe a week to go and then it can go off for a full overhaul by an objective and very trusted reader.
When it comes back from that, I’ll be onto the final draft (or drafts) and then it will begin the editing process ready for publication. And, of course, the last stages of writing are only the first stages of having a book that needs to make its way into the world … a whole other process.
Kafka apparently had a large sign over his desk that said: WAIT. It’s good advice – putting a novel away and coming back to it with fresh eyes makes a huge difference. So, having worried about the hiatus in writing after returning from Budapest, I’m now glad of having taken that space and I’m slowly making my way through the final draft, amazed to find that, despite thinking that draft three was almost ready to go, there are a myriad tiny details to deal with as I go.
What is interesting in this read-through, is that the book feels like it arrived in the universe from who-knows-where, with very little reference to anything I did to make it happen. I’ve been talking to a writer friend who feels the same about her poetry pamphlet coming out next year – wondering where it all came from and did she really write it. It’s a sensation that seems common among writers. But what is it that makes us feel that our own writing simply happened, that we can hardly reconstruct the process in retrospect?
While I was putting together a writing workshop today, it occurred to me that this sensation of discontinuity is related to what John Berger recognised when he talked about writers as witnesses. When we write, we become porous to other places, other lives. If the writing is working, we are totally immersed in a process that is ‘other’ so that we emerge into the quotidian blinking and surprised. Virginia Woolf described writing as rapture and I’ve heard poets, when asked why they write, say they write for the trance.
No wonder we have to wait. Having been in a dreamlike-world of our own creation, we surface into a different atmosphere – one in which every comma and space has to be right; in which every sentence has to be weighed and measured in case it is found wanting. It’s a very different aspect of the writing process and it needs a different kind of concentration and attention, one that is certainly assisted by having taken some time away from the novel after the initial magical process of writing in Budapest.