Tag Archives: writing process

14 reasons why writers need to read

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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Lark or night owl, you need habits to nurture creativity

Lark or night owl, you need habits to nurture creativity

All kinds of things effect our creativity and designing habits for a creative environment can have a huge impact.

As Benjamin P Hardy says:

If you don’t purposefully carve time out every day to progress and improve — without question, your time will get lost in the vacuum of our increasingly crowded lives. Before you know it, you’ll be old and withered — wondering where all that time went.

Getting into peak state for creativity

To be in a peak state for creativity you need to have clarity about your mission, whether it’s losing weight or writing a novel. You need to use time so well that you can make this mission happen. This will require eliminating time wasting activities and distractions.

In short to be in peak creative state you need to optimise your time, which means:

  • Your work should not occupy 80% of your time. You need down time so that you are not fatigued.
  • You need a significant amount of technology-free time. Blue-light screens interfere with sleep patterns so having time without devices before bed is good practice. When you wake up you are in a liminal state between sleep and wake that can be highly creative, so don’t waste that time on emails or social media. And, through the day, a lot of social media is mindless and draining and you can answer emails in one block in the afternoon.
  • You need to do something to move your body every day. Whether it’s walking or yoga or a serious gym workout, sendentariness and creativity don’t go together.
  • You need to be reflecting in some way — journalling and/or meditating.
  • You need sources of inspiration: good company and conversation, reading, art …
  • You need to be awake, which requires enough good quality sleep.

The question is, when do we do all this?

Do we all need to be larks?

I hope you’ll read on –

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5 reasons why shaking up your environment will make your writing excel

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.

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Why writing in place is so powerful

Why do we write?

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.

Want to become a different story?

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Don’t Be a Personal Brand, Be a Person

animals-2739386_1920In a world teeming with the rhetoric of consumption, authors have to play a part in getting their work into the world. But in the eagerness to see our books find readers, it’s tempting to overwhelm the writing with promotion. Does every author have to blog, spend hours on Facebook, run a website, tweet, be active on LinkedIn, Instagram and Pinterest, secure literary festival engagements, organise a reading tour and get promotional flyers printed, preferably before breakfast?

Some of those activities might be useful or apposite for an individual writer. Blogging, building an email list of interested readers and the occasional tweet feel like the right fit for me. But the more worrying concept that underpins our anxiety about needing to be everywhere, doing everything, is that each of us ought to be styling ourselves as a ‘personal brand’. This thinking makes not only what we write just another consumer product, but also makes the writer into a ‘product’.

So what’s wrong with that?

Writers want to find readers. Even given that a lot of what we write never makes it into the public domain (journals, notebooks, aborted stories and poems…) somewhere along the line we want people to engage. Writers work with a reader in mind and communicate things that matter to them. If things go well, the end of a particular writing project will be a beautifully-produced book that you want the world to know about.

The book is a product and if you care about it you will promote it. The hope is that you can do so without getting distracted from your main purpose: being a writer. This might mean getting some expert help. Or it might entail finding ways to support your book that don’t overwhelm you. It shouldn’t mean that you, the writer, become a ‘personal brand’ and this is why:

1. We don’t respond well to anything that has designs on us

counselling; pixabay

Writing to John Hamilton Reynolds in 1818, Keats noted:

We hate poetry that has a palpable design upon us — and if we do not agree, seems to put its hand in its breeches pocket. Poetry should be great and unobtrusive, a thing which enters into one’s soul, and does not startle or amaze with itself, but with its subject.

The same is true of any writing. When a piece of writing is didactic and beats us over the head with its convictions, we tend to resist. But when an article or story communicates something of significance, it gets under our skin. It convinces without brow-beating.

What is true of our writing is true of writers. We resist writers who do nothing but try to sell to us. That’s not to say we should never try to sell, but no one likes to be sold to constantly. When writers are more ‘brand’ than ‘person’ then they become both unattractive and counterproductive.

2. Authenticity speaks louder than sales pitch

voltamax; pixabay

If you don’t love your book and care about it getting into the world, it’s likely no one else will either. That doesn’t mean you have to be in permanent marketing mode. Passion communicates itself. If you love what you are writing, care about what it stands for, write well and communicate well, the authenticity will shine through.

At its simplest, promoting writing demands a transparency to the work that is infectious. You don’t come across as genuine by being a brand. Rather, people soon tire of someone who hustles them, suspecting that a person who packages herself is little more than:

a poor player

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more. It is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

(Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act 5, Scene 5)

3. You’re a person, not a commodity

geralt; pixabay

Being a personal brand is about creating yourself as a ‘package’ that gives a particular impression. It’s a static image that limits you and needs to be constantly maintained. Of course, we all present ourselves in a myriad of ways; the self is fluid and we have many roles. But the notion of the brand has an ‘acted persona’ at its heart. It creates an image that appears ‘on stage’ but which may not be congruent with our values or our writing. What matters most in establishing a brand identity is self-promotion.

As D. J. Lair has argued in ‘Marketization and the Recasting of the Professional Self: The Rhetoric and Ethics of Personal Branding’:

success is not determined by individuals’ internal sets of skills, motivations, and interests but, rather, by how effectively they are…branded.

The self becomes a commodity and not necessarily and honest one.

4. You’re an individual, not a thing

Elljay: pixabay

A brand is an object that is perceived in a certain way; not simply the product in itself, but a whole complex of product, logo, promises, expectations and lifestyle allusions. That’s not my definition of a writer.

A brand can also be a mark left on property — it’s a mark of ownership; a practice associated with cattle or slavery. A branded item is a commodity bought and sold. That’s definitely not my definition of a writer.

Don’t be a brand, be yourself — be honest, be passionate, have values you are zealous about and want to share, tell the world what you do and keep your soul. Don’t become a brand, become a different story.

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Draft after Draft after …

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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt 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.

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