Friday, 22 July 2016

Writing as Improvisation

I recently read Why Be Happy When You Can Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson with my book group and found one of the bravest and most inspiring writer-based lines I have ever read:

Every day I went to work, without a plan, without a plot, to see what I had to say.

She was falling apart by this stage, fighting a battle with the fog, and, as it had throughout her life, writing pulled her through her despair. She was so broken and crushed by the weight of her experiences that she could barely vocalise her thoughts or bring food to her lips, but she had this place of words and stories in which to immerse herself and from it came great healing. The restorative power of artistic endeavour is beyond inspiring, but I was particularly astounded by her courageous faith in the unknown, to simply see what she had to say each day, improvising a world in which to insert herself with no thought for the end result. And this time of improvisation yielded not only the return of sanity but also The Battle of the Sun, a book for children.

For the rest of us, just how easy is it to write to see what we have to say? Personally, I have found the experience incredibly overwhelming, but with surprising and compelling results. It’s also a little frightening. Writing in this way is a direct route to the subconscious – why kick that hornet’s nest? – but it is highly recommended for just that reason, because you never know what you’re going to manifest – on the page and in your world.

As writers, we know already know the power of ‘free writing’, because to a lesser extent, writing is always improvisation. We never know what a character is going to say or how we will express their movements, even if we are working to a strict plan. We are often swept off into fantastical new directions that we simply couldn’t have imagined without the act of writing them. I don’t know how it works, but it does, so why not try to harness this with a 100% improvisation practice, even if it’s just for ten minutes a day, just to see what you have to say? You can start by plucking a first line or subject out of the air, or from a newspaper/the internet, use a photograph or work of art to inspire you, or bravely simply commit to keeping your pen moving for ten minutes with absolutely no preconceptions. I promise you won’t regret it.

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Wednesday, 9 September 2015

Top Ten Words I Found Down the Back of the Sofa

 I love a good top ten list and more importantly, search engines love a good top ten list, so I have compiled my own catchy countdown to draw the masses away from the mainstream Top Ten Movies, TV Shows and Celebrity Arse Cracks and back to the mothership that is the English language. This is Action 159 (Clause 12) of my cunning manifesto to take over the world with a dictionary in one hand a mug of peppermint tea in the other.
But first let me take you back a bit …

To my shame, as a child when reading, I was a skipper rather than a looker-upper, because who has the time to pull out a dictionary for every unfamiliar word when you’re a) immersed in a great book and b) more than capable of inventing a definition for the word using its sound and context? But this is where I had been going wrong; this is where mistakes are made from which one might never recover. For example, who knew the words demotic and demonstrative had absolutely nothing to do with demons? Who knew ‘bucolic’ was neither a disease nor a vegetable? Who knew a ‘sibilant’ wasn’t a robotic, mutant brother?

So, in recent times, I have treated mystery words with a little more respect, especially as it is impossible to skip words in conversations with learned colleagues who have never missed a dictionary call in their lives, and making up my own definitions leads only to embarrassment – a despot is not served for pudding, Dada is not mama’s partner, a filigree is not an accommodating horse.

Several discoveries have emerged from my rehabilitation from crimes against language; the first is a realisation that there are literally words for everything. That may sound like an obvious thing to say, but now I am committed to learning the meaning of every single word in the English language, I am convinced that many words are surplus to requirement. Interlocutor: a person having a conversation. Do we really need that one? Sonorous? I have given this word so many different meanings over the years and now I discover that all it means is deep and full. Call me old fashioned, but we already have two words for that: one is deep and the other is full. Lubricious (nothing to do with the joy of Durex Play): the simple definition of this is lewd. What I’m realising is that I should be in charge of giving words their definitions. I would be so much better at it than the joker who decided that a wonderful word like nebulous, a jewel of the OED – neberendingfabulousness – should simply mean vague.

But it’s not all doom and gloom, or cataclysm and monochrome (which actually means disaster and black and white, but let’s not Serra (Greek dance) with semantics). I love words; of course I love words. I have always loved words; I work with words; I would eat them for dinner if I could. So you won’t be surprised to find that as I worked through my blind spots I uncovered more than the odd word that made me smile. And so was born my top ten words found down the back of the sofa. I suppose I only figurative found them down the back of the sofa (or I literally found them down the back of the sofa if you’re a young person gamely determined to use the word ‘literally’ in literally every sentence and hang the consequences – I literally salute you). Enjoy …

I include this on my list not for its meaning but because I don’t think I have ever heard it spoken, although fiction writers seem to love it. Desires and unpleasant feelings are always being assuaged, but I’m still not sure I know how the word would feel in my mouth should I need to get my assuage on.

We’re just warming up, so another fairly straightforward word, but this one seemed to appear from nowhere one day. I simply hadn’t heard of it, but then it was in every single book I read. Isn’t it strange when you learn something and then it’s suddenly everywhere although you’ve never heard of it before? It’s as if the world gave birth to it at the exact moment I discovered it. Patina: the green film found on bronze.

Now we’re cooking with gas! A student of butterflies and moths.

What can I say? I’m a childish girl-woman. This word isn’t an adjective relating to a popular coffee house chain, or a projection you would find on an accountant’s spreadsheet; it simply refers to something that causes constipation. Ha! It’s such a benign- and innocuous-looking word … and I thought I had heard of all the toilet-related words that existed.

Just look at it! It’s ugly but beautiful at the same time; awkward but self-contained; harsh, almost violent and then peaceful in the last few syllables. The shape of this word tells a thousand stories and takes the tongue on journeys previously untraveled. And its meaning? Fruit-eating.

This is included because I previously only knew the words xenon, xenophobia, Xerox, Xmas, X-ray and xylophone beginning with X. But X has far more to deliver than this: xenogamy, xenoglossia, xenopus, etc., etc. I feel as if I have never lived when I look at these words. My number five simply describes a person with light hair and a fair complexion.

If assuage was chosen because I didn’t quite know how it would feel in my mouth, I have chosen fecundity for the exact opposite reason. I know how it feels and it’s positively filthy. Say it out loud, savour the syllables – fe-cun-di-ty. How isn’t this a sexually explicit swear word? Disappointingly, it simply means fertility (for which we already have a word, which is fertility!)

This is a physical object or design which is made to resemble another material. That sounded quite complicated when I looked it up, but it’s really simple. For example, when you use an app that’s designed to look like something that exists in the real world (a computer keypad, a bookshelf, pages of a notepad), this is skeuomorphic. I’m not sure why this word appeals. It just does; perhaps because I only discovered it a few nights ago and it still has that fresh and exciting glow.

Proving conclusively that there is a word for absolutely everything, this simply means to throw someone or something out of a window. I love that it is clean, succinct and specific. This word can do no wrong in my eyes.      

And at Number One
This word absolutely stole the show for me for its awkward and unusual positioning in the sentence; the very knowledge that this word exists makes me smile most days. It is an adjective meaning ‘at the point of death’. So, for example, a slaughterhouse din might be a cacophony of moribund squeals. A man with his head in a guillotine might have moribund thoughts of a better life where his head hasn’t ended up in a guillotine. Love it!

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    Monday, 18 May 2015

    How to Write Believable Dialogue

    There is good dialogue and there is bad dialogue and depending on which you are writing, it will make or break your story. Nothing engages a reader more than realistic dialogue and nothing disgruntles a reader more than a phrase that is contrived, clichéd and unnatural; it will pull a reader away from your lovingly crafted prose quicker than a flat character or a thin plot could ever do.

    It is not too much of a surprise, then, to discover that writing dialogue is one of the most challenging elements of fiction writing and one which takes time to master. The following list should help you through the minefield of dos and don’ts.


    Listen to how people talk

    This is the best way to learn about speech patterns and natural dialogue. People have many different methods of verbal expression which vary depending on who they are talking to, what they are talking about, their mood and their upbringing. Taking notes from real life will really improve the authenticity of your dialogue.

    Use dialogue to move the story forward

    Dialogue in fiction is an economical representation of the real thing. In addition to being realistic, it must be purposeful. Read your dialogue and ask whether it has a function. Does it establish tone or mood? Does it reveal anything about the plot or characters? Does it add to the relationship that the reader is building with the speaker? Does it add or create conflict? If it doesn’t have a purpose, delete it.

    Break up dialogue with action

    Breaking up the dialogue is especially useful when handling large sections of speech which a reader may find tedious. Including actions alongside dialogue also gives the reader a sense of the conversation taking place in the real world, which elevates the conversation above mere words on a page.

    Vary the use and placement of speech tags

    Speech tags indicate who is speaking and are essential in following dialogue (he/she said). Varying the use and placement of the tag will help the flow of the conversation and prevent the dialogue from becoming tedious. Place tags at the beginning, middle or end of speech. When experienced, a writer instinctively knows the most effective use of tags and when to leave them out completely.

    Give each character a distinct voice

    In theory, a reader should be able to read a line of speech and identify which character is saying it. There are many techniques for achieving this. You may give your character a distinct accent, use habitual phrases or mistakes which they tend to repeat or vary the speech patterns through the grammar. Paying attention to what a character will and will not talk about, their level of intelligence and sense of humour will also create the difference.

    Be aware of pace

    As with all elements of writing fiction, you are in control of the pace. In urgent situations, when you want to pick up the pace, leave out or limit narration and tags. To slow the pace and building suspense, use monologues and longer sections of narration.

    Read widely

    The best way to learn is to see how the masters do it. Read within your genre and note techniques that really work.

    Test your dialogue by reading aloud

    With dialogue, the ears are often a better judge than the eyes. Listen to the dialogue to hear the flow and notice the mistakes that interfere with it.


    Use dialogue to dump information

    This is where trust in your reader is essential. If you have done your job well, the reader will be able to follow the story as it slowly unfolds without a character speaking for the sole purpose of filling in a back story, reminding the reader of past details or over-explaining. Information dumps are unnatural, lazy and annoying. Don’t let them slip into your writing.

    Obsess about grammar

    People don’t obsess about grammar when they speak and you shouldn’t when you are writing speech. People speak in incomplete sentences, leave out words and interrupt each other. Relaxing the grammar can only help your dialogue to be more believable.

    Overdo Tags

    You may be tempted to replace ‘he/she said’ with ‘he roared, whimpered, gushed or barked’, but you will be in danger of drawing too much attention to the tag and away from the dialogue. When the dialogue is strong, simple tags will suffice and keep the reader engaged with what is really important. As stated earlier, use action to ground the reader in the reality of the conversation.

    Overuse slang, stereotypes and Ummms!

    Beware of overusing stereotypes and slang. These can distract or alienate your reader. They will also age your work. In real speech people take time to think about what they are saying and ‘Ummming’ and ‘Ahhhing’ is commonplace, but to keep the dialogue economical and interesting, use this sparingly.

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    Wednesday, 30 July 2014

    10 Questions to Ask of Every Single Chapter You Write…

    1. Are the Opening Paragraphs Slowing it Down
    Chapter divisions are a necessary part of a book, helping to pace the whole, but this doesn’t mean you have to give them too much respect and spend endless paragraphs at the beginning of the chapter re-introducing the setting, plot or characters. The very best chapter openings are those that take the readers straight into the action, resisting the temptation to recap an overview of the story so far or simply take a literary breath, where nothing is actually happening, but somehow you’ve kept the pen moving. Whatever’s happening in your chapter, get to the point as quickly as you can to keep the book moving forward.  

    2. What Do We Know Now About the Plot that We Didn’t Know in the Last Chapter?
    This question could be rephrased to ask ‘what is the point of this chapter’? This is something that it is useful for you to know before you start writing to keep you on track. As an editor, I often read chapters where it seems that nothing in particular happens. One reason for this is that the author has forgotten their creative licence and taken a linear pathway through the story rather than simply picking and choosing a tightly plotted route where something is always happening to take us ever onwards. That’s the beauty of being a writer; you really don’t have to include all the boring bits that happen in life in order to get the interesting bit. Be succinct in your writing and make sure that every single chapter moves your reader forward in some way. Remember, ours is such a disposable culture that it only takes one slow or ‘bad’ chapter where nothing much is happen for a reader to potentially pass you over for another read.

    3. How Has Your Lead Character (Other Characters) Developed?
    Again this is about making every chapter count. Use your plot development and the interaction between characters to show us exactly what makes your characters tick. Ideally they will be constantly affected by the events of your novel, so take the time to ask what this particular chunk of story is going to do to them. If your characters remain essentially unchanged throughout then something has gone wrong.

    4. Is Any Part of the Chapter Unnecessary?
    There are a range of reasons why parts of the chapter may be unnecessary, two of which are outlined in the preceding questions (not progressing plot or character). The ideal is for you to keep moving forward, and cutting unnecessary passages will help this, whether it’s that you are spending a little too long hammering a point home that you nailed in a few paragraphs, or you’ve written a killer description that you love, but it really is slowing the narrative down. It could be that you have chunks that are a little repetitive because you want to feel confident that you have got your point across. Have faith in your readers and your own writing ability that they will understand what you are writing immediately without dead, repetitive passages. Be ruthless in your cutting to create the best possible read.

    5. What is there for Your Readers to Wonder About?
    This is a huge question, responding directly to the reasons that readers choose to read at all. Whatever you are writing, you need to be one step ahead of the reader because readers want to be challenged. Mystery is not simply the domain of the crime writer; whatever you are writing, you need to leave your readers guessing. If you are asking what there is for your readers to wonder about with every chapter you write, you stand a good chance of creating a book that will deeply satisfy even the most skilled, plot-unravelling mind.

    6. What is there for Your Readers to Care About?
    Another reason that readers read is pure escapism and it is your responsibility to create an island for their imaginary vacation. The only way that this can happen is for you to get your readers emotionally involved, so you have to continually ask what you have created that your readers will care about. This is an extremely loose question because there are a number of ways to care and it is up to you to decide which is appropriate for you and your story. Empathy is the key here; if readers are able to relate to the characters you are creating and the situations that you put them in then you have a jumpstart.

    7. Has Any Opportunity for Action Been Missed?
    This is an interesting point to make and not one that is always apparent to the writer unless they make a point of adding it to a chapter checklist. Again this has become apparent to me as an editor, reading fiction of all kinds, and relates to how you choose to tell your story. Of course, there are many ways to plot events in a novel and quite simply, the most exciting route is a wrecking ball through the middle of the drama as it happens. This is how truly exciting fiction emerges. Let me qualify this by giving you an example of the alternative: picture a thriller, perhaps a detective novel, where the protagonist spends most of his or her time thinking, going over evidence, talking to people, cracking on with the clues and then eventually solving the case. It sounds good, but how much better would it be if the same protagonist always arrived at times of danger and has to put his or her life on the line to get to the truth and the clues put him or her under further private peril and he or she barely scrapes it to the end of the book in one piece? Just as mystery isn’t just the domain of the mystery writer, thriller writers don’t have the monopoly on action. Even if you are writing a non-genre, literary thinker, a love story or a comedy, you need to keep your readers engaged by keeping the stakes as high as you can.

    8. Has Any Opportunity for Originality Been Missed?
    While we’re making sure that you haven’t missed any opportunities, take a moment to do an originality check. Have you read or seen anything you have written in this chapter before? Worse, have you bought into any clichés that are dominating this chapter? One of the most wonderful things about being a writer is being able to present a unique view of the world to readers. This should be presented on many levels throughout the book, from the overall vision that you want to achieve and the characters and plot that gets you there, to the way events are presented throughout each chapter, right down to language level, where you are being inventing and using your personal voice to create a unique reading experience. Taking the time to check that you haven’t sloped off into a world that’s just too familiar will help you as you write each chapter.

    9. Is Everything Right?
    This will seem like a ridiculously broad question to ask of your chapter, but accuracy is important. I have read books where Mr Smith began as a blonde teacher and ended as a ginger accountant. I have read books where he started as Mr Smith and somehow became Mr Schmitt by the end. She grew up in Suffolk but somehow now has a Geordie accent? We’re told in the first chapter that he always calls her lollypop because of the size of her head, but then we never actually see him call her it. It’s all about consistency and accuracy. Some writers keep notes as they write to make sure that they aren’t having crises of continuity. Chapter by chapter, it may just be an idea to have a read through what you’ve already written so that you are avoiding glaring errors and equally usefully, creating a consistent reading experience in terms of your style. This is also a great time to mention SHOW don’t TELL, which I’m hoping needs no further explanation.

    10. Will the Ending Keep the Pages Turning?
    Chapter endings give readers the option of reading on or slipping their bookmark in for the night and coming back to you another day. Ideally you want the former, so approach the end of the chapter with this in mind. I have read books where every chapter ends with a cliff-hanger, which was great apart from the fact that I don’t remember getting any sleep at all throughout the whole reading experience. Not every book needs to have this level of drama, but ask yourself how you can end your chapter to guarantee, at the very least, a return visit from the reader. An unresolved issue is great. What also works is a reveal – readers will always want to read on to see what happens next. Surprises and twists are great also. Basically I would just encourage you to utilize what you have with the beginnings and endings of chapters and steer clear of ‘the day begins’ and ‘the day ends’ kinds of openings and closings. Chapter divides are a great tool for you to explore and master, so take the time and see what you can do.

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    Thursday, 30 January 2014

    Writing Exercises

    Much like an athlete, it is essential that you exercise before the marathon that is writing a novel, script or poetry/short story anthology. Even non-fiction writers need to warm up or you will find yourself exhausted with only a blank page to show for your efforts.
    Writing exercises, however, not only serve to enhance discipline and stamina, they are paramount in generating ideas and improving your skills in certain areas (e.g. developing characters, writing dialogue, etc). Listed below are tried and tested writing exercises for you to dip into:
    Adjective Free
    Adjective free is an exercise which explores style and language choice. Write a scene or chapter, maybe just a few pages, without using adjectives. Introducing this limitation is a great demonstration of the power of word economy and the over-reliance of certain words. It will also get the cogs turning in a uniquely challenging way.
    Chain Writing
    This exercise is great fun for two or more writers. One person starts by writing a few paragraphs then passes it on to the next person to continue (maybe by email). This can provide a great break in a heavy writing session, introduce you to collaborative work and produce amusing results.
    Character CV
    The better acquainted you are with your characters, the more rich and believable they will appear to your reader. As the title of this exercise suggests, write a character CV for any character you are writing about. The CV should not simply include work and education details; include as many of the following as possible: Height, body shape, hair colour, skin colour, method of transportation, favourite saying, accommodation, typical outfit to wear, friends, pets, upbringing, favourite food, drink, book, film, moral attitude, financial situation, hobbies and anything else you can think of.
    This exercise is specifically geared towards improving dialogue writing. In a public place (maybe a café), sit, listen to and record as much natural dialogue as possible. The importance here is to write it exactly as it was said. In addition to improving dialogue writing, interesting people translate into interesting characters for future writing.
    Go out into the World
    It is so important to take breaks from writing and this is a productive way of doing so. Go out into the world (the city, beach, forest, etc) and bring back one or more items that you find. These can be, for example, an interesting leaf, a brick, an item of rubbish, or anything that takes your fancy. Write vivid physical descriptions of the item(s) and develop a back story to how the item(s) ended up where they were. This is good as a general exercise and may generate story ideas.
    This is a great exercise which encourages writers to show and not tell in dialogue. Write a scene where two characters are lying to each other without stating that this is the case. The reader must be able to figure out that both are lying through your use of language alone.
    New Endings
    This exercise is great for identifying writing influences in your style and distancing yourself from them. Select a favourite novel, script or short story and rewrite the ending. When completed, examine how your voice differs from the original author. As writers our voices need to be as individual and original as possible, so actively practice abandoning outside influences.
    News to Fiction
    This idea has been used by many writers to inspire stories and films. Select a news story of interest (local news stories are quite good for this as they are not too dramatic and leave lots of scope for embellishment) and write a fictionalised account of it. As an extension of this exercise, choose an ad from the classified section of the local paper and write the back story of the sale.
    People-watching is an endless source of entertainment and, as a writer, it can also be a great source of inspiration. Spend some time in a public place and select one person to be your central character; writing a detailed physical description can be a great creative exercise. Taking this one step further, create a life story for this person and they could create the foundation of your next big idea.
    Pick an Object, any Object
    Starting small, chose an object and work outwards to create a scene. You may, for example, choose a chair. What does this chair look like? Who sits in it and when? What room is it in and what is it like? Make your descriptions vivid and this exercise has the potential to generate wonderful plot and character ideas.
    Random Words
    This is a great exercise for working with specific restrictions and will often produce zany writing. Collect words from the dictionary by opening the pages and blind-pointing. Alternatively, ask a friend to give you a list of words. Now write a story containing every one of these words. It can be challenging when you have to include hovercraft, daffodils, X-ray, Oxford, stereo, liver, ice-cream and prostitution in the same story.
    There’s no I in fiction
    Okay, there is an I in fiction, but this exercise will help to separate your personality from your characters’. Select a character from a story/script you are working on. Write an unrelated scene/chapter where you interact with your character. It could be that you’re having a meal together, giving a job interview or even that your cars smash into each other and you are having an argument. This exercise will highlight areas where you are using your own personality in the place of genuine character development.
    Timed Free Writing
    Set the clock for 10 or 20 minutes everyday and just write. Pay no attention to what you are writing; just let it flow. This will get those muscles working and will produce surprising results.
    Visual Stimulation
    Many great literary works began with a visual seed of inspiration, so try it for yourself. Choose a painting or image and bring it to life with words. You could write about what you see or what you feel. Who is in the picture? What is this world like? How does it make you feel? You could also select a few different images and combine them in a piece of writing.
    Although not technically a writing exercise, workshopping your writing will help you to improve your technique and your critical skills. A successful way of doing this is to set up or join a small group (perhaps online). Everyone should read a piece of writing written by one of the participants and discuss their responses constructively.

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    Tuesday, 5 February 2013

    How Many Writers Does it Take to Change a Light Bulb?


    One to change the light bulb…

    Four to say that they’d already had the idea, but didn’t want to show anyone what they were doing until they’d polished their light-bulb-changing technique…

    Two to point out that someone else had already changed a light bulb, so changing another one was unoriginal and thus not worthwhile…

    Three to call light bulbs a new technology that was going to be catastrophic for traditional literature…

    And One to figure out that writers are terrible at maths.

    Everyone's so serious at the moment, but I thought I would offer a stolen joke to lighten the writers' load. And now for the inevitable self-promotion, but if you see something you like you'll be glad you stopped by...

    Proofreading: £4.50 per 1,000 words
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