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.
I wrote the following monologue in response to a writing prompt from my friend, Natalie. She asked me to write from the perspective of someone who can’t get out of bed.
The prompt reminded me of my nana, who spent a month in hospital this summer after fracturing her leg. While she was in there, I visited her a few times a week. On some of those occasions, she had been given codeine to help her with her pain. Codeine and my nana’s imagination make an interesting combination…
The story went on to win first place in a contest run by domestic violence charity Equation, and I got to perform it at Waterstones, Nottingham. It’s being published in an anthology with Global Wordsmiths, coming out in January 2017!
Hello, my name is Lily Thompson and I am ‘Bed Ridden’. Have you ever thought about that phrase? ‘Bed Ridden’? What does it mean? I’m riding the bed? The world’s got rid of me at last: sent me to bed? I’ve heard the phrase all my life, bet you have too, but I’ve never really sat down and thought about it for long, realised how silly it is. I’ve plenty of time to sit down now. Maybe there’s another meaning of ‘ridden’ that I don’t know. Probably. There’s lots of meanings I don’t know: I left school at fourteen. Didn’t want to wear glasses to read the board, see. Boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses. Worked though, didn’t it? Married before my twentieth birthday. For what that’s worth, now. Now that I’m bedridden, no husband left to visit. And the NHS would have given me a bed anyway, whether Derek had been able to afford it or not.
My daughter Elaine was an English teacher, before she retired. She’ll know what bed ridden means. Or my granddaughter: she’s an English teacher too. Makes me wonder if being stupid isn’t in my bones after all, as me mother was fond of saying. I did a test for dementia once, with one of the carers. My score came up as ‘mild something impairment’. Can’t remember the middle word. Typical. Elaine told them about me leaving school at fourteen and they noted it down, said it was a handicap, gave me an extra point. Didn’t matter, I was still mildly impaired. Not impaired enough for a diagnosis, too impaired to rule it out. None the wiser then, on the stupidity front. I said to them – what’s the point in all of this, anyway? To embarrass me? Isn’t Parkinson’s and a missing breast and a dead husband handicap enough? The only handicap Derek had was a ten in golf. That bloody man breezed through life. I’ll always look after you, Lily love, he told me. Stick with me, duck, I were born lucky. Well where are you now, ey, my lucky duck?
Bed ridden. Chair ridden. Same blummin’ difference. I’ve been ridden one way or another for years, since Parkinson’s lost me my licence. Well, the two crashes lost me my licence, but it was Parkinson’s fault. I’ve been doddering on me zimmer from bed to armchair for three years. Carers to make breakfast, carers to make tea, carers to wash my blummin’ privates. One cup of tea I wanted to make myself, tripped over me own feet. That’s what’s landed me here. But the bloody joke of it is that now that I’ve got a fractured leg, now that I’m bed-ridden, I’m on my feet more than ever. Blummin’ physiotherapy. Blummin’ nurse, barely out of nappies, telling me to think positive, think myself well. I lived through the war, duck! Ration books! I tell her all this, tell her to shove her positive mental attitude. She walks off, mutters what a sweet old lady. She says it so as I’ll hear, so I let her hear what I’ve got to say, too. I shout it. ‘If you want sweet old ladies, go to a W.I. meeting, duck, not a hospital ward! Old age is serious business, you cheeky cow!’ Sweet old lady, indeed. I was never a sweet young lady, why should I start being sweet now? I’m a human being, not a Werther’s Original! What was that poem Elaine was always going on about, for her O Levels? Rage against the dying of the light! No one told Dylan Thomas to keep his bloody chin up, I doubt.
The think positive nurse comes back. Gives me some pills, ‘for the pain sweetheart‘. ‘Thanks, love’. Even under all these wrinkles, even with the blue of my eyes dimmed to grey, my evil eye’s better than hers. Still got it, old girl, Derek would say.
I only realise its Codeine once it’s too late. They’ve been warned not to give it to me. On my little wall chart it says: ‘Lily, milk no sugar, no opiates (hallucinations)’. Too late. She’ll get away with it. Overworked NHS. Ah well. How much worse can it be? What was that advice mother gave me about my wedding night? Lie back and think of England? Poor mother. Who knows what she’d have made of the sixties. My wedding night was a blummin’ riot. Wouldn’t mind being that kind of bed ridden again.
Anyway, I don’t think of England. Not this time. In fact, I think of Kilimanjaro. That’s in Africa! My grandson went on an trip with his university a few weeks ago – he says he doesn’t mind doing it again if I fancy it, he wants to show me the view. We have fruit trifle in the cafe at the top. He has to leave for a cricket match, so I ask him to drop me off at the theatre on the way. Barbara and I tour London together. She looks amazing – best she’s looked since we were at school – her blonde hair in a bob, polka dot dress like she’s Marilyn. You don’t look bad for eighty-six Barb, I laugh, and she says we’re only young once, Lil, you’re looking pretty grand yourself, and she’s hoisting me up on to the stage. The actors don’t seem to mind, they’re clapping. Really, I ask her, you don’t think this is too much? I’m pointing down at my bush, which is as blonde as Barbara’s bob. Too much? She laughs. Do you see anyone complaining? If you’ve got it, Lil, flaunt it! So I do, firing rainbow lasers from my nipples which I don’t remember getting pierced but I tell you what, it looks blummin’ good: I should never have kicked up such a fuss when Elaine got her ears pierced, I should never have kicked up any fusses, I should have spent more time tap dancing naked under the spotlight. I will from now on.
I’ll wipe the ‘no’ off my little board, when I get back to the hospital. And the bit about hallucinations. I’ll add an exclamation mark, add three, I reckon I can get out of bed for that. Lily! Milk no sugar! Opiates! My granddaughter’ll complain, no doubt. ‘Come on, Nana’, she’ll say, in her concerned teacher voice. Bless her, she means well. ‘Come on Nana’, she’ll say, ‘we want you to walk again’, and I’ll say ‘listen ducky, I don’t need to walk, why walk when you can fly?’
There has been a huge hiatus since my last post, but not because I’ve given up on writing – rather that I’ve been distracted by it, and by various pieces of good news about it.
My children’s novel, the opening of which can be found here, was longlisted for the Mslexia Children’s Novel Competition 2016. Yay! The novel is a middle reader called Dream Catchers, and the main character is based on my best friend, Esther. The previous winner (and one shortlisted author) got published! More news on Dec 5th.
A monologue I submitted to a contest run by Equation (a Nottingham based domestic violence charity) won first place in the Over 16 category, and I got to perform it at an event at Waterstones, Nottingham! I’ll post the monologue in another post as soon as I’ve clicked ‘publish’ on this one…