Hooray! I’m now officially a graduate of the Warwick Writing MA! The ceremony involved lots of clapping and lots of silly hats, but I managed to stop mine from falling off, which was my main concern. I didn’t quite believe I’d got a distinction until I saw it on the certificate, and now it’s framed on the wall in my study so that I’ll never forget. =]
If you’ve stumbled across this post because you’re applying to the Writing MA at Warwick and want to get in touch, please feel free – I’ll be happy to fill you in on my experiences of the university and the course itself.
So that’s it now – no more ties to university, and I’m out in the big bad world of seeking an agent and writing, writing, writing!
It’s Friday the Thirteenth today! Spooky, huh? And what better way to spend a portentous day like this than by reading thirteen tips on writing from one of the most acclaimed and prolific horror writers of our time?
Did you know that Stephen King wrote The Shawshank Redemption? And Green Mile? And The Shining? Oh, and let’s not forget Carrie, Misery, Pet Sematary, The Mist, The Running Man, It, Salem’s Lot… For what it’s worth, my favourite piece of writing by King is a chilling short story called ‘Survivor Type’, which you can read online here.
But besides all the chill and gore, King has also penned an acclaimed ‘memoir of the craft’: On Writing. Of all the books I’ve been recommended on the topic of improving my writing skills, this one seems to have come up the most. So today, I’ve been reading through it and picking out tips, which I’ve summarised and paraphrased below. This is by no means an exhaustive list, and On Writing really is worth your time and attention, if you’re a person that takes their writing seriously. To clarify: this is the advice of Stephen King, and does not necessarily reflect my own opinions or experience as a novice writer. There’s a lot of good advice for the taking, though. Plus, if you buy the book, there’s an exercise you can do, which you can then submit to the author himself!
Happy Friday! And don’t forget to lock your front door…
Writing is telepathy, so what message are you trying to send? Put in slightly less enigmatic terms, writing is taking an idea from my head and placing it into yours. To illustrate this idea, King describes a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink rimmed eyes, sitting in a cage on a red tablecloth. The rabbit is munching on a carrot stub, which it holds between its paws.On the rabbit’s back, marked in blue ink, is the number 8. Can you picture the rabbit? King imagined that rabbit in his basement in Maine, back in 1997. Now here I am, in Beeston in 2017, receiving the image, loud and clear. Where are you, in space and time? Can you see the rabbit that passed from King’s mind to mine? King points out that he doesn’t labour over the description of the tablecloth or the cage, because it’s not important. What he wants you to focus on is the number eight. Why is it there, on the back of this caged rabbit? So as a writer, are you spending too long describing the tablecloth? Are you pointing out which shade of red it is, and whether it’s made of cotton or lace? Think about the story you want to tell, and tell that, not anything else.
Don’t make a conscious effort to improve your vocabulary.
Got a big vocabulary? Fine, so does H.P.Lovecraft’s writing. Got a small one? Fine, so does Steinbeck’s. Words are communication tools – pick the best one for the job, not the longest. Sometimes, ‘said’ is fine. Sometimes ‘fine’ is fine, too. How should you decide which word to pick? King’s advice is to “use the first word that comes to your mind, if it is appropriate and colorful”.
The adverb is not your friend. That’s words that describe actions, like ‘quickly’, ‘eerily’ or ‘smoothly’. King’s suggestion is that you’re probably over-explaining. You may think it’s useful to add ‘firmly’ in the sentence ‘he closed the door firmly’, but have you considered whether the surrounding context of the scene has already done that work for you? The key message here: if you’re using a lot of adverbs, you’re probably not trusting your reader – or your prose – enough.
‘Said’ is the best form of dialogueattribution.
Forget what your teacher told you. Or, if I was your teacher, forget what I told you.Your reader can probably figure out how it’s being said from the dialogue, so loosen the reigns a little bit. Again, avoid the adverb. Consider the following examples:
“Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said.
“Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom said, spitefully.
“Watch where you’re going, loser”, Tom growled.
Did you learn anything more in the second two examples, about the kind of voice Tom was using to speak? Probably not. It was probably implicit for you in the dialogue. King suggests that – again – this kind of overwriting is a case of underestimating your reader, or underestimating yourself.
Avoid the passive tense. Every verb has an active and a passive form. With the former, the subject is doing something: “Jenny bit her lip.” To translate that to passive, would look like this: “the lip was being bitten by Jenny.” The passive tense is the meek, indirect voice of business emails and instruction manuals. It sucks the life out of a story as quickly as a needle in a balloon. Make your writing active. Make Jenny bite her lip.
Chekhov’s gun works in reverse, too. You may have heard of the dramatic principle of Chekhov’s gun. The idea is that every memorable element in a piece of fiction should be necessary (even if it’s necessary as a red herring). In Chekhov’s words: “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” King points out that this idea is also true in reverse: if the main character’s lucky Hawaiian shirt plays a role in the story’s resolution, it needs to be introduced early on.
Avoid over or under describing. Enough to ground the reader, not so much that they’re drowning in imagery. King suggests that a few details can stand in for everything, and the reader will fill in the rest. He also suggests that the first few details that come to mind are probably the best, and that “the key to good description begins with clear seeing and ends with clear writing, the kind of writing that employs fresh images and simple vocabulary”.
Omit needless words. Sounds simple, huh? But bear in mind that in your first draft, you’re creating a world. Once the world has been created, probably about 50% of the words you used to build it will turn out to be scaffolding that you can now discard.
Read a lot and write a lot. Sorry, guys. There’s no escaping this one. Would you open a bakery if you weren’t willing to bake and eat cakes? King writes daily – 2000 words is his target, and he sets his mornings aside for the task – and says that if he doesn’t, the characters start to go stale. He suggests that you could start by aiming a little lower – perhaps 1000 words a day – and should take no more than one day off a week. In terms of reading, he advocates for reading widely and across genres, and not to dismiss bad books as a waste of time – they teach you just as much as the good ones. King says he reads 70 or 80 books a year. I managed only 27 last year. Must try harder.
Write what you like, as long as you tell the truth. This is a variation on the cliched aphorism that you should ‘write what you know’, which creates space for writing about monsters and spaceships and bringing a monster to life on a dreary night in November. King phrases it thusly: “Write what you like, then imbue it with life and make it unique by blending in your own personal knowledge of life, friendship, relationships, sex, and work.”
Start with situations and characters, not plots. King makes the excellent point that you want your characters to “do things their way”, instead of marching them through a carefully planned plot.
Dialogue is crucial in defining character.
In King’s words, “talk, whether ugly or beautiful, is an index of character.” The way a character speaks can show your reader how smart your character is, how honest, how direct, how malevolent… It’s a great way to live up to that old writing cliche of ‘showing, not telling’. Good dialogue, King points out, is a delight to read. Bad dialogue is embarrassing.
Put your first draft in the proving drawer. You should leave it alone for six weeks at least, according to King. Let yourself get so involved in a new project that the old one becomes less precious and immediate to you. Then, once you’ve gained enough distance from it, you’re ready to do a good job of re-reading and editing. Do it in one sitting, if you can.
As I was ruminating on the books I read last year, I thought it might be fun to pick out my favourites and to briefly summarise what I liked about them. So without further ad0, may I welcome you to the first annual EMILY AWARDS! Drumroll…
Best Novel: The First Bad Man – Miranda July I don’t want to say too much, except that the first page made me gasp with surprise and laugh out loud, and that carried on happening throughout. As original and playful as Vonnegut. Like Vonnegut, I liked humanity more by the time I reached the final page. Read it.
The Godfather Award for Best Sequel: The Story Of a New Name – Elena Ferrante I really liked My Brilliant Friend but I loved The St0ry of a New Name. I felt as though MBF did all of the grunt work of establishing place and characters (so, so many characters), so that TSOANN could really get going with telling a focused, atmospheric story. Lena and Lila are some of the most complex and fully realised female characters I’ve ever come across, and I felt myself copying Ferrante in everything I wrote, for a good while after reading this. Whoever the real Ferrante is, she gets female psychology. And she gets that it’s not always men we’re mooning over.
Best Hangover Read: The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins I dislike the snobbery that surrounds genre fiction. Sometimes what I want from a book is to be wrapped up in its plot, to be immersed in its world and to be distracted from my headache and the smelly man in the seat next to me on my route back from a heavy night in Manchester. Plus, it’s always great to discover a flawed female protagonist.
Best Re-Read: The Sense of an Ending – Julian Barnes I first read this in 2011, because it won the Man Booker prize. I read it on tubes and while walking and always because-I-thought-I-should. I was glad when it was over, and couldn’t see the point of it. When I re-read it this year (in order to teach it), it took my breath away. There was a philosophical undercurrent that I missed on first reading, and ruminations on ageing that I wasn’t ready to understand. This read taught me that enjoyment of a novel is all about timing, and that you perhaps shouldn’t read while walking if you’re hoping for a profound literary experience.
The Tom Waits Award for Experimental Fiction: Grief Is The Thing With Feathers – Max Porter
For the line ‘OH NO YOU DON’T, COCK-CHEEK’. But also for the beautiful rendition of romantic love in a way that celebrates friendship and childishness. For the fact that it is both poetry and prose, both terribly sad and terribly funny, and it has a massive crow in it.
Is January 12th too late for a New Years Resolutions blog post? Maybe. Never mind. George Eliot wrote that “it’s never too late to be who you might have been”. Lovely Mary-Ann Evans: she gave me so much to think about for my undergrad dissertation, and she’s still teaching me now. Homegirl was a trailblazer, no doubt, as a writer and a feminist. But she also championed the right to change one’s mind. Evangelical Christian one minute, atheist the next, a writer who sought to challenge literary stereotypes of women but who rejected women’s suffrage, Eliot’s/Evans’ life was anything but a straight line. When I was eighteen, and for some time after, I believed in the straight line. I knew everything about my life and the path it would take, and I was anxious and impatient to get going. If you’re an ex-boyfriend and I was sure about where your life was going too, sorry. Now, at 27, I’m less sure than ever what the right direction is. But I’m also less anxious. I think the paths probably overlap, and reconnect, to paraphrase Robert Frost. I think it’s not too late, to be who I might be. I think it’s not too late to be unsure. I think it’s never too late to be unsure.
Anyway, I like January. I like resolutions. I enjoy the monastic celebration of sobriety and the optimism of new beginnings. But I’m a realist, too. Fuck abs, man. I like carbohydrates and Netflix too much. My resolutions this year are about reading and writing. ‘A writer’ is the current version of me I’m enjoying trying to be. And because you can take the girl out of the secondary school but you can’t take the secondary school out of the girl, these resolutions are all written in the form of SMART targets: i.e. they are Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Rewarding and Timely. That means that when NYE 2018 rolls around, I can accurately assess if I stuck to them.
Blog twice a week – to achieve this, I intend to include book reviews, records of literary achievements and reflections on the writing process.
Write daily – A minimum of 500 words or a poem. Every writer worth their salt advocates for this habit. In the morning, preferably.
Get an agent – All I can do is write to them. All they can do is say no!
Enter competitions – At least one a week.
Complete another manuscript – pressing save on my first one was up there with crossing the finish line of the Amsterdam Marathon.
Read 30 books – I read 23 last year (that I can remember), so this seems manageable. I’d like to set a more ambitious number but I’m not the quickest reader and these targets are supposed to be Achievable. Six of last year’s reads were re-reads (usually for teaching purposes). I’d like to avoid that as much as possible, this year. There are plenty of never-read books already on my bookshelf, patiently waiting their turn.
When I was a teacher, I felt very confident that I was a teacher. It said it on my PGCE certificate. It said it on my GTC membership certificate. It said it on my job contract. It said it on my payslips. When I turned up to the building known as ‘school’ five days a week, I was regularly addressed by small people as ‘miss’, which is of course shorthand across the Western world for ‘female educational professional’ or ‘teacher’. There was no doubt then, that I was a teacher.
So when am I allowed to call myself a writer?
Well, I write most days. I send bits of writing to contests often, and last year I poured a sizable chunk of my savings (from teaching) into obtaining a qualification that would declare me a Master of Writing. I’m currently working on finding an agent to represent me in getting my first manuscript published.
But there is no job contract.
And although my certificate declares that I have mastered the skill, this is more of a comment on what I’m capable of, as opposed to an entry pass into the magical theme park of paid writing opportunities.
And there are definitely not any pay slips. (Rough calculation: money made so far from teaching: £100k +. Money made so far from writing: -£10k +).
Perhaps most disheartening of all, there is no building that I can go to in order to be referred to as a writer. The boost in esteem that came with being a teacher (and the positive impact that allows you to make) was, for me, enormous. By contrast, the process of writing stories and submitting them to strangers who – 95 times out of 100 – will ignore or reject them, is the equivalent of shoving your self esteem into a tumble drier full of rocks and rusty nails.
So. If a writer writes and no one is there to appreciate it (or pay them), are they actually a writer?
Well, in my case, yes. Because as of today, I say so.
I didn’t feel the need to get below a certain pace before I started calling myself a runner.
I don’t feel the need to have visited a certain number of countries or to have read a certain number of books before calling myself a traveller or a reader.
I am a writer because I write. Being paid to do it would be nice. Being paid and acclaimed would be even better.
But for now, I am a writer, because I write. And for now, that is enough.
If you’re reading this and you have aspirations of being a writer, I hope you’ll take this as encouragement. If you want to be a writer: just start writing. As often as you can. Every day if possible. The rest – I hope – will follow. 🙂
P.S. I have made some little changes to the title and subheading of the site (though the URL hasn’t changed yet) to reflect the fact that – now that I’m a full time PhD student of writing – I’m hoping to start including posts about the process of writing and my attempts to embark upon a career in writing.
The first time I heard the word ‘verbatim’ used to describe an art form was in reference to theatre. A drama teacher I was shadowing in my PGCE year was encouraging her A Level students to produce pieces of verbatim theatre by reading through transcripts of historic court cases and shaping them into performances. *As a side note, a shout out must now go to Alessandra, Bao Vi and Yeon Kyu, my former AS Level English Lit students, who may or may not still read this blog. All three of them got an A in their English A2 result (so another shout out must go to my friend and their teacher, Emma). If you’re reading this girls, CONGRATULATIONS, YOU MADE IT! And let me know how you got on in your other results!!* Ok, side note over. The definition of Verbatim Theatre is as follows:
a form of documentary theatre in which plays are constructed from the precise words spoken by people interviewed about a particular event or topic.
To be honest, I didn’t get the point of it. To me, it seemed lazy: a way of spoonfeeding students a ready made story line and script in the absence of real creativity. But then I saw my first piece of Verbatim Theatre and changed my mind.
In 2012, the National Theatre staged a production of ‘London Road’: a verbatim MUSICAL, no less, about the Ipswich murders. Sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it: a script drawn entirely from interviews with the residents and prostitutes living and working on London Road, and which aspires to be both hilarious and tragic. Every um, every er, every accidentally misspoken word would be preserved in the script. I went because I loved the National Theatre, but I wasn’t expecting much.
To my surprise, it really worked (and not just for me – it’s since been revived, transferred to other theatres and even turned into a film). The moment though that, for me, really crystallised the value of verbatim came towards the end. After a busy, cheerful string of show tunes about flowers, town hall meetings and other innocuous aspects of suburban life, the lighting dropped to a single spotlight and a single woman, alone on the stage. In a wavering falsetto, in a tiny circle of light surrounded by all that darkness, she sang:
“I mean, sounds awful, doesn’t it, but they’ve. They’ve um, done us all a favour, haven’t they, really?”
The ‘they’ she referred to? The murderer Steven Wright. The ‘favour’ he did them? Improving the class of her neighbourhood by murdering five prostitutes.
After that line, the spotlight cut to black and three women (representing the prostitutes who lived on to mourn their friends deaths and fear for their own lives) stepped onto a balcony, their faces lit from below. They stood for maybe three minutes, utterly silent. No one in the theatre made a sound. Three minutes of silence to reflect on whether you’ve ever felt like that spot-lit woman. Three minutes to realise that those words were really spoken, by a real human. Three minutes of silence to remind you that these women’s voices were never invited into the conversation, so there are no lines to give to them in a piece of verbatim theatre. That was the moment that this art form first made sense to me. Sometimes, the power of art is not in creating something new but in casting fresh light on something which already exists. Verbatim theatre can do just that.
So is Verbatim Poetry a concept? Why yes, yes it is! Although it’s often called Found Poetry instead, as sometimes the art is in noticing that the poem already exists, whole, if you look at it the right way (as opposed to constructing something artificial from things that already exist, as with the London Road script). Google Poems are a great example of these, in which Found Poetry lovers screenshot Google’s predictions from half typed searches. The results are sometimes hilarious, sometimes profound. Here are some fun examples…
So this morning, for my poetry writing warm up, I decided to write some verbatim poetry after getting the following poetry prompt:
Grab the closest book. Go to page 29. Write down 10 words that catch your eye. Use 7 of words in a poem. For extra credit, have 4 of them appear at the end of a line.
Since I’m in the library with Pete today, the nearest book to me was ‘Principles and Practice of Surgery – 6th Edition’. And page 29 is all about ‘transfusion of blood components and plasma products’. Yay. As I was reading through to pick my ten words, trying to think how ‘immunoglobins’ or ‘coagulation’ could be embedded into a poem that I might be able to both write and understand, I decided to make that the focus of the poem: applying random scientific phrases to the topic poets normally seem to write about: LOVE. As a result, I ended up with these: two short, silly verbatim poems which list commonalities between blood components/plasma and love.
Hopefully the informative nature of this post will make up for the flimsy nature of the poems. =]
Enjoy! If you’d like to try some verbatim writing, why don’t you try writing your own poem listing commonalities between love and something? You could use any kind of non fiction book: a recipe book, a text book, a travel guide… as long as it’s page 29!
Ruminations on The Principles & Practice of Surgery (6th Ed)
1) Commonalities between Love and Fresh Frozen Plasma
Available for use in children
Can be removed
Can be removed from a unit of whole blood
Associated with severe bleeding
2) Commonalities between Love and Human Albumin
No compatibility requirements
No clear advantage
There is increased vascular permeability
There is a risk of acutely expanding the intravascular space and precipitating pulmonary oedema
I’ve been reading a lot of YA (young adult) and children’s fiction lately, as part of the ‘Writing for Children and Young People’ module on the Writing MA. In the final session of the unit, our class read The Bunker Diary: Kevin Brooks’ controversial tale of six strangers chloroformed, kidnapped and locked in an underground bunker by an anonymous assailant. The novel won the 2014 Carnegie Medal, and it is this accolade which has been at the centre of most discussions of the novel ever since (including the discussion had by our little seminar group). The crux of the argument is this: if a novel as bleak and disturbing (i.e. so adult) as TBD can win the most prestigious of children’s fiction prizes, what exactly defines good children’s literature in the first place?
And the content of TBD certainly is bleak. There’s suicide, rape, murder – even a suggestion of cannibalism. And all this within the overarching plot-line of abduction, laced with physical and psychological torture. Content wise, it couldn’t get much darker. No one survives: not the goodies, not the baddies. The abductor is never identified, never confronted and never gets his comeuppance. Even Emma Donoghue’s Room saw the victims escape. I’m still uncertain as to why Room was shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize but TBD won the Carnegie. There’s an argument, I suppose, that the characters inRoom are more complex, that the perspective is more creative. But this doesn’t ring true for me. In terms of creativity and complexity, Room is reduced to dust in the face of His Dark Materials and Lord of the Rings. Superior creativity and complexity alone then, cannot be the measure of what turns YA fiction into full blown literature.
Many critics argue that the issue here is TBD’s lack of hope. Amanda Craig of The Independent wrote that children’s lit should teach children that their “experiences will enable them to restore justice”, accusing TBD of a “lack of redemption”. I’m not sure whether I agree or not that children’s literature should ultimately be uplifting and hopeful, and that all experiences represented within should be meaningful fables. It’s certainly not what all children experience in their real lives. But aside from that, I can’t say that I agree that TBD is bereft of redemption or lacking in hope. Yes, the content is bleak: including the ending. But it’s the tone that is significant here. I found the voice of Linus – the ‘author’ of the diary – utterly, heart-breakingly uplifting. Linus’ response to his captivity is to pour love into his relationship with Jenny, a little girl who he becomes a pseudo-father figure to, look after her and stay strong on her behalf. Furthermore, Linus bonds with Fred and Russell, and their sense of solidarity and mutual respect abides until death do they part. They refuse to suspect one another, apportion blame or commit murder to please their captor. The message here is that the human spirit is fundamentally good. It is the same message as The Boy In The Striped Pyjamas: bad things happen in the world but we don’t need to lose our humanity if and when they do. What could be more uplifting, more hopeful than that? It’s quite the opposite of the message at the heart of Lord Of The Flies, and we’ve been teaching that at GCSE for decades.
Ultimately, I’m reluctant to agree with an ideology which seems to suggest that children are anything other than smaller, less experienced adults. They’re interested in a lot of things, in the boundaries of the world and its workings, and I can’t see how piquing that curiosity through literature could be a bad thing. Rejecting and censoring literature with such a warm P.O.V – just because the ‘V’ in question is so bleak – seems patronising and foolish to me. If you want to start censoring something with a bleak P.O.V, start with internet porn, which, by the way, pre-teens can reach far more quickly (and far more independently) than they can reach their local library.
Children don’t need sheltering from nasty things, is my ultimate opinion. They will come face to face with nasty things eventually, and what they perhaps do need before that happens is a range of strong, compassionate role models to aspire to and model themselves on. In Linus, Russell, and to an extent Fred and Jenny, The Bunker Diary offers young people just that. For me, that’s enough to mark it as a good YA read, but I’m not sure I’ve answered the question of what exactly defines it as YA fiction yet. Answers on a postcard for that one, please.