craft

autumn leaves in pond

Why impatience is a GOOD thing

One of the criticisms commonly levelled against adults reading YA is that it is symbolic of a wider cultural problem: the fact that attention spans are getting progressively shorter and shorter. That a diet of skimming online has rendered us unable to devote the time and effort needed to appreciate deep, serious, proper Literature (note the capital).

And I agree entirely that our collective attention spans are altering and that this is having an impact on what we want from both art and entertainment.

Another criticism against YA that is often twinned with the first is that, as a collection of literature, it represents a ‘low culture’ form of entertainment for people who, because of their short attention spans, need instant gratification. Proper Literature (note the capital), conversely, requires patience – not to mention high-culture knowledge and skills – to be appreciated.

And I agree that sometimes art and entertainment are the polar opposites they’re often seen as. But I’ve never liked the snotty implications of dividing things into ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. I much prefer the more nuanced concept that people render the same objects ‘high culture’ or ‘low culture’ by their reaction to and interaction with them during both creation and reception. In one reader’s hands, Harry Potter is fluff. In another’s, it is the subject of quality scholarship.

More simply put, the world is what we make of it. Art is surely the zenith of this truism.

Our behaviour towards cultural objects is what renders them entertainment or art or, more commonly, a mix of the two. Do we spend time analysing a book? Do we read slowly, checking back to make connections? Do we relish the language? Do we think about the book after we’ve finished? Do we daydream our own stories from it? Do we think about the implications for the real world? Do we consider how and why a book works? Or do we simply read as quickly as possible to find out what happens so we can start a new book? Time allows us to elevate any cultural object. Time gives us the scope to think and, perhaps more importantly, imagine.

But do we have to be patient with the object itself for this to happen? It rather depends on the object. The idea that writers might want to make cultural objects as ‘efficient’ as possible is not antithetical to the idea of writing as an act of creating Literature. It takes precision and skill to edit out unnecessary material. Knowing what to take out is as important as knowing what to leave in.

One of the things I love about YA is the precision of the editing in so many of the books. The idea that our readers (teens or adults) may not want to dawdle unnecessarily or depart on pointless tangents pushes us to keep asking ‘What does this contribute?’ and ‘How can this scene do as many things as possible?’ and ‘How do we convey the max. with the least number of words?’ All of these things are as much about Literature (note the capital) as entertainment. The idea that baggy and long-winded books are necessarily more literary makes little sense.

And, yes, times and tastes have changed. I thought Middlemarch was fascinating but overly long. I would have got as much from it in terms of its literary value if there had been less to slog through – and it would have increased its value to me as entertainment at the same time.

After all, surely the ultimate goal is for people to take pleasure out of ‘quality’. Art and entertainment should, can and do go hand-in-hand – though only in the best books. Art and entertainment are not antithetical. And in this regard, sometimes impatience can drive Literature forwards, demanding that we do our best to make every word count, every page illuminate as well as entertain, not allowing us any slack.

The people who could read – and could afford books to read – used to almost exclusively be people with time on their hands: the idle rich. That was true from the birth of the novel until surprisingly recently. Cheap paperbacks and an increase in literacy changed things… Now lots of people read, but very few of them have the time to read as much as they’d like. There are so many demands on our attention, our time… and also myriad possibilities for entertainment. Not only are books competing with TV and computer games, but with other books. So is it any wonder that our patience is waning? We could be doing other things. We could be reading other things. Books can’t afford to ask us for any more patience than is strictly and absolutely necessary. And why should they?

If they do, why shouldn’t we turn to books that recognise that time is limited – that our lives are limited – and that, when we’re surrounded by such wonderful possibilities, we should be impatient to make the most of them. We should want to spend ourselves on the best books: those that give us the most with the least waste.

So let’s be impatient… to a point. Let’s all try to get the most out of life and the wonderfully diverse array of books that we can access (at least in the UK, where we have a brilliant, if threatened, library system). Let’s not waste our reading time on books premised on the idea that art and entertainment can’t and shouldn’t go hand in hand. Literature can and should be lots of things at once. That is the whole point. That is what makes it Literature with the capital. But we, as readers, are just as important as writers.

We need to be patient enough to read actively whenever we can. To be part of the act of creation. To collaborate with writers to bring Book-Worlds to life. Writers need to make their work open to this type of reading, but we’re the ones who have to follow through if a book is to become Literature.

We need to be active, not passive.

But we also need to be impatient when authors waste our time. We need to demand their best creativity in exchange for our own.

If that’s the type of impatience we’re exercising, how can it be bad? Isn’t it, rather, a refusal to waste ourselves and all the real and fictional possibilities before us?

Garden path with steps and flowers

Bogged down at the beginning?

In books, as in essays, the beginning is sometimes the last thing you write – or at least the last thing you work on before finishing.

It’s not just that the beginning is, in some ways, the most important bit – if people don’t read on, it doesn’t matter how good the rest is; it’s also that you can’t write a good beginning until you know exactly what it’s the starting point for. No matter how carefully you plan, you never know exactly what will end up on the page and what, therefore, your beginning needs to offer your readers.

It’s easy to write a functional beginning. Surely, it’s just about the story starting in roughly the right place with the right people present, some interesting questions and Things Happening? Nope. Sorry. It’s not that simple.

The first thing to do is acknowledge that faint sense of unease about your beginning. It’s going to need work: a lot of work. Most beginnings do. But it’s equally important to acknowledge that until almost everything else is done, there’s only so far you’ll get with it, no matter how hard you try. And you should try: beginnings get better inch by inch, rarely all at once. That said, the main thing is to know that you will have to come back to it at the end. That’s when, if the rest of the book is ready, you’ll be able to fix the start.

New Book sold on the basis of a synopsis and give-or-take 50 pages. They weren’t terribly good pages. Oh, don’t get me wrong, there was some good writing and it was all very functional, but it wasn’t right. This weekend is when I need to fix it. The rest of the book feels happy. I am content and relaxed about it (to the extent I am ever relaxed about anything to do with writing). But the beginning is still bugging me. As it should, because it is just not right.

Though last night I started to really make inroads into fixing it. I worked on the first 3824 words. There are now 3304 words. In other words, 12 pages have become 10. Hopefully, I’ll get down to 8 or 9 but we’ll see.

The main thing I knew was wrong about the beginning was that it was slow. It wasn’t obviously slow – plenty of interesting, fairly important things happen to the main character internally and externally, and lots of questions are raised. But still it dragged. Even I wasn’t in a rush to read on when editing. This is a Very Bad Sign: writers ignore it at their peril.

I was also worried about the fact that one of the three characters we meet at the start will disappear and never reappear. There’s an important reason for his presence at the beginning of the book, but how much time do we want to spend with him? Isn’t it better to do what we need to but efficiently? Yes! Fewer pages with The Nobody!

What else? The writing. I knew it was clunky and had to grit my teeth to submit it: knowing your writing is clunky isn’t the same as fixing it and I know my own writing process enough to understand that no amount of time or effort (there had been a LOT of both) was going to get it further… until the rest of the book was done and heavily edited. I know why it’s clunky now, or at least I’m getting there with this understanding.

Point #1: At the beginning, when there is no book, clarity means spelling things out. There are no ‘next pages’ where little hints and questions get explained: there is no development so that the implicit may become explicit. There was far, far too much I’d said on the page that I didn’t need to with an entire book to come to do just that. Don’t be obviou: you only need to be reasonably clear about some things at the beginning. Other things can become obvious over time and do not need to be spelt out on page one event if they are very important.

Point #2: Don’t say things twice. At the beginning of the book, things are happening for the first time. It’s easy to worry that readers won’t see that they’re important unless you repeat yourself. There is a whole book to do that in – gradually and over time. As you edit, cut the repetition in the beginning. It is slowing you down and making your writing clunky and it is just Entirely Unnecessary.

Point #3: Don’t draw attention to things that don’t matter, unless they’re purposefully there as red herrings (or, as I prefer to call them, wanton fish – a lovely post-anaesthetic semantic leap into the absurd). My Nobody character is there to be a nobody. My beginning must make this clear then not dwell on it or him, otherwise I’m muddying the waters in ways that are unhelpful and boring.

Point #4: Is this absolutely necessary? Beginnings should contain only that which falls firmly into the ‘Yes’ category. Sometimes beauty and interest can make things necessary, but they must be very beautiful and/or interesting indeed for this to be the case.

Point #5: Beginnings are like an orchestra warming up. Every element must tune up to come into harmony with all the others. It’s a necessay part of the process of finding the voice not just of the characters but of the book: its particularly rhythmns, sounds, the little threads of language that will make it tight at the level of song. Once the rest of the book is singing, you can go back to the beginning and tune it all up properly so that it does too. Books shouldn’t start softly, with little mumbles of nervousness: they should belt from page one. Not belt in every sense, but in the lanuage sense – absolutely. You can only accomplish this when you have a whole book behind you to work with. That is the ‘score’ for your song: all the ornaments, the developments, the themes. How can you write a stonking beginning unless it references those things, perhaps slyly and shyly, but references them all the same?

So that’s where I am. New Book is almost done, though there is still work to come. But I have a good feeling about that. If only I can sort out this slow, clunky, out-of-tune beginning…

Acer leaves

Are you in the mood?

When writers talk to me about the ‘energy flows’ of their writing space, or the purity of the vibes in their study, or the necessity of being in a state of zen before they can centre themselves to create, I tend to want to vomit. While one part of me says ‘each to their own’, the part that gets irritated by people trying to make writing mysterious starts snarking on about the fact that it would rather like to examine some entrails to see what is in store for the day – preferably, the entrails of a moron who needs to ‘centre’ before work can commence.

I get the concept, I really do, and I think meditation is actually quite a good idea. It’s just the way people talk about it that gets me. Mediate. Go ahead, but just do it. Don’t dress it up as something half miraculous… And don’t dress writing up like that either.

Writing is many things but most of them aren’t mysterious if we’re not trying to pamper our lazier tendencies… or trying to exclude people. The mysteries of writing can only be mysterious if a select few – and only a select few – are clued in. I’d rather like to think that everyone could be clued in. Believing this should be a prerequisite if you also teach writing, though a fair few writer-teachers don’t seem to agree. I suspect most of these people are only teaching to make money on the side because writing often doesn’t pay enough. Which is fine, but if you’re going to teach you need to do it with decent principles rather than in a state of petulance that your last advance wasn’t six figures.

Of course, no matter what their teacher believes, some people will be good at writing and some won’t be, with varying levels of goodness and badness in between. But there’s no reason for the enterprise of putting pen to paper (or fingers to keyboard) to be this weird thing shrouded in rites and rituals and secret handshakes and, most horrid of all, secret clubs where you’re in or you’re out.

Writing is about putting words on a page. It is both as simple and complicated as that. But there’s no reason it can’t be democratic – or at least a meritocracy: open to all who are good at what they do, whether that’s writing novels, fanfic or blogposts.

There is ‘magic’ in writing but it’s not the magic of a study’s vibrations or The Perfect Pen. It’s the magic of turning something in your imagination into words that will recreate that imagined something (or an equally interesting imaged something) in the mind of a completely separate human being. That’s pretty magical all on its own, if you think about it: the closest to telepathy as we currently get. What more magic do we need?

Another good reason to do away with the concept of the mysteries of writing is writers’ block. This is equally unmagically. It’s not some pseudo-illness that other people just can’t understand because they’re not true artists [sniff, sniff, wail: my tortured soul, etc. etc,]… It’s simply a problem with the process of getting words on the page, usually because you don’t actually know what you’re doing with a specific project yet and haven’t blindly stumbled on the right answer through pure dumb luck so have to actually work at it. That’s something that happens to all writers all the time. The thing that makes one person a ‘real’ writer and another not is that the ‘real’ writers just get on with the hard work of figuring out where they’ve gone wrong… or they turn to a new project, taking a break to get some perspective on the old one. Either way, ‘real’ writers get on with the act of putting words on the page.

And there we lead into why I find the idea of having to ‘centre one’s energies to get the creative zibbles flowing smoothly’ such a lot of rot. Meditate to clear your mind because you’re plagued with self doubt: a great idea! Do a bit of yoga or karate or go for a walk to give yourself time to climb out of the real world and into the world of the book: absolutely, go for it! But don’t see it as some weird magic ritual.

Everyone’s inner writer has a delicate ego. But that doesn’t mean it should be pandered to and inflated by silly means. I generally prefer the word ‘writer’ over ‘author’ because it comes from the verb: a writer is a person who writes. Who puts words on a page. End of story.

Or rather, the beginning…

 

Writing and teaching: a series of resources

This post marks the start of a new project to create a collection of free online resources, involving a range of authors, about the links between writing and teaching. The initial focus will be on author visits to schools, but I’d like to expand eventually to include creative writing and teaching at university level, and also in more informal circumstances, like workshop series in libraries and so forth.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch (via Twitter @AlexiaCasale or a comment on any part of this blog) if you’d be interested in doing a guest post (more info below).

If you’re a teacher who regularly works with authors, I’d be also be very interested to hear from you: it would be great to gather some guest posts from the other side of the equation.

So there did this all come from and why is it A Good Thing?

Last week I did my first ever school visit as an author. Huge thanks to Uxbridge College (my old school) for having me back to do an AS English Lang. & Lit. lecture!

When I frantically set about researching how author visits work, I quickly realised how little free material is available. There’s not very much for newbies trying to learn the basics: what do I do? What do authors usually do? How do I avoid the PANIC?! There’s also very little for authors who have done school visits but then think, ‘You know, a bit of professional development would be good: I’d like to learn about how other people do it to see if I can get some new ideas to refine my practice.’

There are seminars (NAWE recently had one that sounded brilliant). And there are resources (again, NAWE have a long list) BUT most you have to pay for, with no opportunity to ‘see inside’ to check whether the advice is going to be worth it. And most are written by a single author, so at best you know you’ll be buying one point of view. There are also some good individual posts on individual author websites.  

BTW, do let me know about your favourite existing resources! I’d love to collect some links.

What I have yet to find is a collection of free resources that explores different perspectives. I think this is a pity.

I find this lack particularly surprising as, having spent three years working part-time to qualify as a teacher (PGCHEP – the university-teaching equivalent of a PGCE) and Higher Education Academy Fellow, I was hugely impressed by the central role professional development is accorded in teaching programmes. These programmes aren’t just about qualifying but understanding that you can always improve – and should strive to do so. That’s very attractive to me as a writer as the same principles apply: there is no end point where a writer has perfect mastery of the craft, no matter how brilliant he or she may be.

Just because authors don’t have to be qualified to do school visits – or, indeed, to teach at university or in libraries or other circumstances – doesn’t mean they aren’t committed to doing a good job… and that they don’t need or want opportunities for professional development. And, at the very least, a decent selection of free resources to start with.

(BTW, I am not suggesting here that authors should have to get a qualification to do the sorts of teaching I’m referring to: it wouldn’t be feasible, though I’m sure many would love there to be more courses to go on both to meet others in the same boat and to learn teaching basics. Anyway, the point I’m trying to make is that most authors feel a responsibility to do their level best at events and it’s important for them to find some help and support without having to pay – at least for the basics.)

Anyway, the plan here is to try to create what I think is missing.

If you’re a published author and you’ve done at least one school visit, do get in touch if you’d be interested in doing a guest post. I am particularly interested to hear from authors who are also school teachers or university tutors/lecturers. As I said above, I’d also love to explore the other side of the coin with some guest posts from the perspective of teachers who regularly work with authors.

Most of the post will fall broadly into the following four broad categories

  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: what authors should know about how books are taught
  • ‘teaching’ events for authors: good practice examples and pratical advice
  • authors who also teach: how your own writing inspires/advances your teaching skills and how your teaching inspires/advances your writing skills
  • authors who also teach: innovative approaches to using professional creative practice in teaching and learning

So that’s the plan and the reasoning behind it!

First post coming soon. The lovely Emma Carroll, author of forthcoming Frost Hollow Hall (Faber & Faber, 3 October 2013), offers a brilliant workshop outline for teaching an English Literature creative writing class on how to write like a Victorian. Fantastic fodder for discussing classics from the Victorian age versus modern historical fiction, as well as getting your students to start dabbling in their own creative historical projects.

 

purple and blue columbine flower

Keep it simple, Stupid!

Before you get incensed, this comment is directed mostly at myself. It sums up a lot of my plot-related problems.

You know how sometimes you’re working on a book – maybe in your head still, and not even on paper – and you know there’s something magical there but the plot as a whole just won’t hang together? What do you do about it? How do you make this ‘not-quite-magical-but-could-be, I-just-know-it-could-be’ thing and make that leap?

For me, the answer is either (a) have the right idea, or (b) stop trying to make things so complicated. Basically, (b) translates into common English as ‘Keep it simple, Stupid.’

Quite often I’m sitting there trying to figure out Something Exciting That Can Happen Next when what I really need to do is ask myself ‘What makes this idea magical and how can I push that as far along the storyline as it can go?’

This is where (a) and (b) start to meld. Sometimes the right idea just won’t come. And it’s there: somewhere, there really is an amazing answer to your plot dilemna that’s as close to being The Right Answer as anything ever is in fiction… Quite often The Right Answer just refuses to present itself to me for months, if not years. This is why some ideas languish for years and years in my imagination, periodically resurfacing but then sinking again, before I start shaping them into anything that could be a book.

Usually, the main reason The Right Answer doesn’t stroll over and wave at me is because I’m looking in the wrong direction: I’m trying to make things complicated then fretting over how to make them believeable. Often The Right Answer is so simple you smack yourself in the face once you find it. But part of the reason it is The Right Answer is that it seems obvious (once you’ve captured it): it seems inevitable. Anything that seems both obvious and inevitable is probably right. Especially if we’re talking about your ending: the climax of your story.

So if you’re going in circles wondering how A can believeably lead to B and how on earth that could logically connect to C, maybe the problem is that you’re creating a long chain of unbelieveableness because you’re working on the wrong idea to begin with. The right idea is generally surprisingly simple.

Even if you’re writing a complicated mystery or thriller, often you’ll find that each element is simple within itself. The more complicated it gets, the harder it is to deliver it to the reader in a form anyone will enjoy. If it’s too complicated, not only will it be really hard to reveal it in a step-by-step way so that the reader eventually goes ‘Oh, of course! Why didn’t I see that all along?’ rather than ‘Urgh. So obvious!’ or ‘How could anyone possibly guess that?’ but the reader may have such a headache by that point that there’ll be little emotional satisfaction. Simplicity offers a more effective route to emotional satisfaction in about 90% of cases. And while some stories are fun just for the pure intellectual puzzle, a book that doesn’t also make me feel something falls short as fiction in my books (horrible pun thoroughly intended).

Just because something is simple doesn’t mean it has to be basic or boring. What makes a simple idea clever is the ways you find of revealing the idea (i.e. the truth of the story) to the reader without telling them outright. That’s not always simple at all. But it will probably consist of a chain of individually simple steps. The minute any one step gets convoluted, you’re probably heading in the wrong direction.

Just keep asking yourself ‘What is the truth of the story?’ – or, in other words, ‘What is this book really about?’ Then ask yourself ‘If the book is really about X, what would be the strongest expression of X I can offer the reader?’ That will give you the big ideas. For the little ones, just ask yourself ‘What is the truth about what’s happen here? What am I trying to get at with this element?’

So, in The Bone Dragon the early drafts had Phee and Lynne turning up intermittantly and not doing very much. I wasn’t worried about this because they worked as characters: each had a strong, individual voice and was believeable and interesting… But only while they were on the page. In between, I forgot about them. Eventually, I asked myself if readers would want to read about them on that basis. And the answer was ‘No’. So I started to ask myself why they were there. Not just ‘What are they doing in each scene to make the scene work because people are needed?’ but ‘What is the purpose of each of these people in the book? What does Phee DO in this story? What does her part in it SAY?’

I didn’t have an answer. So I thought about the book as a whole and what the main themes are. And then I thought about my main character and how her life reveals those themes. And all of a sudden it was obvious what Lynne and Phee, individually and together, COULD add to the book as whole. All of a sudden it was obvious what the book offered each of them as a reason for being. Ultimately, the answers were fairly simple – as was how to deliver new scenes to reveal those answers to the reader. But more about that once the book is published. I don’t want to go giving things away.

At the end of the day, it’s a delicate balance between leaving things foggy and vague and too simple, and making sure you don’t make them unnecessarily complicated. In other words, be focused, but keep it simple, and chances are no one will accuse you of being stupid at all.

Autumn leaves

NaNoWriMo?

Recently, one of my students asked about whether she should give NaNoWriMo a go. My answer: yes.

There was, however, a significant ‘but’. My take on NaNoWriMo is that anyone who is interested should give it a go but, in doing so, it’s best to focus on enjoying yourself. Don’t worry about whether you’re producing something that will be publishable. Just produce as much as you can. Practice your craft.

I’ve never done NaNoWriMo, but I have written several full-length drafts in a month. It is doable. Whether it’s a good idea will depend on the writer and on the project in question. But for anyone at the start of a career, it’s a great idea for one key reason: it involves producing lots of material. 

I am always amazed when people ask me to explain what I’m talking about when I refer to the many, many ‘practice novels’ I wrote (and those I started but abandoned) from the age of 10 through my teens. I’ve wanted to write since before I can remember, but I always figured that if a pianist wouldn’t play a piece all the way through for the very first time at her big concert, then why should a person trying to become a novelist think that their first attempt at producing a book would result in anything publishable? It works out for some people… But not for most.

In any case, even if you do have the natural talent needed to pull it off, developing your skill and craft through practice and hard work is only going to improve what you can achieve through instinct. As I tell my students, don’t worry about whether you’re talented. There’s nothing you can do it about it. Focus on what you can change: your mastery of technique and craft.

When I teach writing, I try to show my students that the very best way to learn is to via an apprenticeship approach. 

  • Write.
  • Get feedback.
  • Use the feedback to write something better.
  • Get new feedback…

Practice doesn’t just apply to sports and music. It should apply to writing too. So even if what you produce during NaNoWriMo is rubbish, don’t think of it as wasted time. Think about it as practice.

Just don’t expect one novel to be enough practice. It may seem like an awful lot of work, but is it? If you were a musician, would the number of hours you put into the book have been enough to make you a professional?

Writing is so subjective that you can’t expect practice to make you perfect. But it will make you better.

I wrote over a 1 million words worth of practice projects before I tried to write my first novel for publication. Why?

  • Because I’m a obsessive workaholic, over-achiever. Maybe I’ve got talent, maybe not. Nothing I can do about it. But I can – and do – choose to be a hard worker. 
  • Because I figured writing a publishable novel would be hard enough without also having to learn the technical skills needed to write something of that length.

Just writing a coherent story that spans 300 pages is a huge task. Do you really want to have to master the basics of that while also trying to write amazing prose, create a compelling plot with a solid build to an intense climax, and also figure out how to develop your characters? Well, maybe you do and fair enough, but I certainly didn’t. I wanted to know how to write a functional narrative and decent, functional prose before I worried about creating anything good enough to be published.

Practice will be you a decent writer. Graft and talent will make you a good writer. All of that and a bit of luck will make you a published writer.

You can’t control luck, just as you can’t control talent. So work on what you can control: how hard you work.