And then it was all over…


…no, not NaNoWriMo, I haven’t had time for that! The last ten weeks have been spent immersed in a world of poetry (ModPo) and creative writing study (How Writers Write Fiction). I have been walking round with a sheaf of poems to read stuffed in my bag, every spare coffee break has been spent watching course videos, when the kids go to bed I’ve been turning to the latest assignment or tackling some peer evaluations. And then there are the forums / Twitter…it’s been full on but utterly mind-expanding! Then today I woke up to the realisation that there are no more assignments, no videos to watch, no new poems and stories to read..it’s all over.

I feel no sense of freedom, just a great big sad slump. In one sense, this was all displacement activity when I should be working on my novel but I think I judged right that feeding my brain all this wonderful stuff would only be a good thing in the long run. If I’m not opening my mind to new ways of doing things & reading quality literature of all shapes and sizes, then my own work will stagnate.

IWP’s “How Writers Write Fiction” was of direct benefit – it’s been 7 weeks of superb tuition on all aspects of writing fiction. I completed all the assignments (usually c.1000 words following specific instructions) and I’m really pleased with what I did. I think these could be worked up into short stories or more, I’ll let them sit for a while and then revisit. I found this course to be just the right level for me: demanding but not overwhelming. I plan to do a quick review now of all the material we covered before I recommence my novel.

Penn’s “ModPo” on the other hand will take over your entire life if you are lucky enough to be able to let it! I was not familiar with any of the poetry  apart from a little Walt Whitman – being a Brit, we didn’t encounter it at school and I remained an ignoramus ever since. I opened myself up to it all and found all my ideas reworked and expanded on what poetry (and indeed life) is all about. I can see that my brain is actually sharper after listening to 10 weeks of the close reading discussions – it’s been the best brain workout.

I’m going to spend a couple of days reviewing how I go forwards now. I’d like to dip back into ModPo to look at the “ModPoPlus” material but I think I have to put my novel first. I have a week’s leave in December so I’m aiming to be ready to storm it then with fresh outlines and ideas. As HWWF’s Christopher Merrill would say, “Onwards!”



Owen Sheers on writing a novel (12th Oct 2015)

Being lucky enough to live within striking distance of Swansea University, I went along to see the inaugural lecture of Professor Owen Sheers, their new Professor of Creativity. He’s a poet, playwright, screenwriter and novelist so he pretty much covers all bases! He was talking about his new novel I Saw A Man which I haven’t read but which is now on my wishlist despite having to give a few spoilers in his talk. As I’m currently doing “How Writer’s Write Fiction 2015” (great MOOC!) it was a treat to hear such a great Welsh writer talk about his craft. I can’t do it justice but here are some interesting points he made, in no particular order:

  • His novel arose from a single image: that of a man entering someone else’s house. He linked this with Martin Amis’ words: “the throb of a novel”.
  • He gestated the novel for about 6 years. He talked about the process of forgetting, of losing the initial “throb”, but that in itself led to finding new ideas. When you live with a novel for that amount of time, it becomes “a vessel for general concerns”. He realised that time spent not working on the novel was in fact time working on the novel (because it was gestating).
  • He wrote and trashed 10,000 words 3 TIMES because he hadn’t found the right way of telling it.
  • When he had got the central narrative device, he was able to write a first draft in 3 months. He wrote instinctively, without too much reflection. He liked to be surprised by what happened in the process.
  • Writing is about finding complexity in what initially may be quite simple ideas. Not everything should be on the surface but, at the same time, for the reader he strives for clarity, simplicity, authenticity.
  • Writing is partly the process of obscuring yourself, the author, but you also need to find something of yourself in each of the characters to inhabit them. He sees the author not as creating characters, but as eavesdropping on them.
  • He quoted Don Paterson’s “the poem is a machine for remembering itself” and commented that the novel often worked best when it forgot itself, its main theme, and diverted into something memorable.
  • In a novel it is better to pose more questions than you answer.
  • He always knew what the last line was going to be.
  • He considers short stories to be the hardest prose form to get right (and recommended Alun Lewis a Welsh writer). The ideas he has for short stories tend to become poems.

You can see it was a wonderful talk for any aspiring writer – in particular, the length of time and false-starts should give anyone (like me) hope who often feels it’s all going pear-shaped but can still feel that throb, that call to tell the story, despite all the setbacks.

More things I’ve learned from poetry aka ModPo week 2

Despite the arrival of house guests I made it to the end of Week 2. We were looking at the continuation of the Whitmanian and Dickensonian traditions so more new poems and poets for me. 

Things that stuck with me from this week…

  • The modern emphasis on the complicity of author and reader (although as I write this I hear “reader, I married him”…). On the way both are present – in the sense of just turning up – in the reading of the words of a poem. The Cid Corman poem is a powerful evocation of this, with all content emptied out apart from this.
  • The continuing importance of the word “this” and what happens when you’re not sure what it refers to.
  • Gender crept in. It felt hard sometimes to like William Carlos Williams, with some discussion in the forums of his apparent misogyny. I think I found him funny. I liked to think he was well aware of all his issues in Danse Russe.
  • 20th century alienation (now I’m hearing the Manics: “culture, alienation, boredom and despair…”) in the aisles of the neon supermarket or behind the drawn shades of suburbia.
  • The art of condensing.
  • Meta poetry: self conscious, wearing the traces of its composition, always there to trip you up or make you go a little bit further in “understanding” a poem, if such a thing is ever possible.
  • The challenge and uncertainty of “difficult” poems. Is there a key to search for or just an open ended ambiguity we must learn to be comfortable with, to embrace. 
  • A composition of “found language” could be interesting.

Dickinson, Whitman and me (#ModPo Week 1)

Photo of soaring trees

I’ve been working through week 1 of ModPo this week which has focussed on Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman as proto-modernists that will lead us into the rest of the course. I wasn’t very schooled in either of them so it has been a great introduction and I’ve enjoyed putting them head-to-head and thinking about whether I’m a Dickinsonian or Whitmanian. These are my thoughts from the week in a fairly random, Whitmanian splurge:

  • It’s hard to think about Dickinson and Whitman without seeing them as a woman and a man, with all the freedom and constraints of their time. I feel sorry for Dickinson, for the limitations placed on her, but would she have achieved so much if she wasn’t constrained by her circumstances? What would Whitman have done if he couldn’t roam? If he was confined to a room and a house and a rather suffocating life? If he hadn’t been able to loaf? The house and the great outdoors seem at the heart of their work.
  • Sometimes I find Dickinson too uptight, too spikey, too concentrated, too intense, too clever, too superior. I don’t like the thought of her working on these little prissy poems…and yet each one can detonate with a force that explodes her world to smithereens. She has sewn up so much meaning and concept into each one, it can unfold into something massive and expansive where there is plenty of room for thought. I think I don’t like her uptightness as it’s something I don’t like about myself. I do admire her precision and concision and economy.
  • Sometimes I find Whitman too rambling, sprawling, lazy, messy. It’s a splurge across the page, too wandering and unformed. Yet I find myself scribbling out quote after magnificent quote, feel myself stretch out in luxurious embracing of the world with him and it feels fantastic. I love his democracy and socialism. Then again it’s all so…manly, arrogant, irritating. He’s a verbal manspreader.
  • They’ve achieved immortality. They sat there, in the 19th Century, writing these words with all of us unborn and unthinkable, and yet we now inhabit those words and come up with a gazillion shades of meaning. Most of these I’m pretty sure were never in the mind of the poets and in some ways its daft to be too emphatic on this because what matters is the spaces they left for us to occupy. That is what good writing of any type is all about – robust enough to support a social space, flexible enough to be interesting and interesting enough to be enticing.
  • The part I feel I haven’t grasped is how radical or ground-breaking they were or the work they were building on or launching from. This is due to my lack of knowledge of 18th Century poetry and its conventions. Maybe we need an #OldPo? Then again, I remember from school how too much emphasis on the context and the technical language can drain the life from literature so I’m accepting my limitations and going with the flow.

I’m feeling pretty reluctant to leave these two and move on but I already have next week’s poems printed out and ready to go. I’m not happy with making a choice but, if pushed, I’m going to sit down in the Whitmanian camp for sheer enthusiasm, yelping and joy. Plus “I stop somewhere waiting for you” is about the sweetest ending one could ever hope for…

Thanks to all involved for such a wonderful course. If you’re not enrolled, it’s right here.

Storyboarding and the creative process

I came across this video (only 7 mins) which is well worth a watch. It shows the screenwriter Dustin Lance Brown talking about his creative process when he works on a new script. Having just bought myself a nice little pack of index cards, and being something of a stationery addict, I loved to see him covering his (rather splendid) table with his cards, working out how his script will go together before he starts writing.

I’m not a screenwriter but I think there’s much food for thought and inspiration in here for fiction writers too. I’m about to use my cards to outline my scenes and lay them out for an overview. I’m doing this at revision stage but I can see that should I ever be starting a fresh work (hah!) it would be a great outlining process.

Stick with the video to the end and you’ll swell with joy at his passionate defence of the need for more stories in the world!

Shining different lights on a first draft


I don’t like to feel I’m wasting time reading about writing more than actually writing but at the moment ideas are coming thick and fast as I step back and consider my draft in different lights. I find this is particularly good for fitting round the kids (it being school holidays) and work. As I re-read, analyse and play around with my first draft, the following have been the most helpful so far:

Novel Revision from Write Like a Pro! There are lots of guides but this one was particularly straightforward and covered the important parts. 

The Reader’s Emotional Journay by Writer Unboxed. There’s a great method proposed at the end to examine characters or places. I’ve tried a bit of this and it produced some great new directions for me.

Plot vs. Head – another one from Writer Unboxed. Challenges you to find the big and the less exciting moments and work on them. 

The other one I’m picking up ideas from is How to diagnose your novel’s strengths and weaknesses by Darcy Pattison. I haven’t tried the Incredible Shrunken Manuscript yet but there are plenty more good ideas in there.

There are loads of good blog posts out there – any that have worked really well for you at this stage?

Week 2 of “Start Writing Fiction” – Writing Rituals

[I’m just making my notes here as I do the course. They will be notes on what we learnt, bits of writing and reflections on how the course is going.]

This week was all about getting started and getting on with writing.

Approaches to Writing

We were asked to consider “What approaches [to writing] are most suited to you?” after listening to three writers talking about when and how they write. This is my take on it:

  • Late at night is my preferred time as I am not a morning person. However I am often very tired by evening so even this is not ideal.
  • I like the idea of making lots of notes and playing around in a notebook, however this may lead to procrastination! The idea of “getting below everyday language” is an interesting one. I guess however that may depend on what you are writing?

Which approaches are least suited?

  • Morning pages are fun – I read the “Artist’s Way” years ago and had a spell of doing them (a time of greater freedom and no children!) but I’m not sure I found them useful as much as therapeutic. I remember the “brief” was just to splurge on the page without letting the brain interrupt too much. However, I am definitely not good in the mornings – not first thing, anyway.

Creative Writing Exercise

We then had to imagine two writing venues – one ideal and one difficult – and describe a writer at work in them both:

1. Bang, bang, bang. Then the stuttering hiss of the steamy milk frother. A tap runs. The clink of mugs being collected. A baby cries. Chatter at the counter. Whistling. I tap away on my ancient laptop – focussed, unobserved, sheltered by white noise and the company of strangers.

2. The TV flickers and babbles. The kids were settled but already it’s “Can I have another banana?” “Can I have more juice?”
I have to give them ‘the look’.
“Please mummy.” Put the laptop aside, heave myself up, fetch banana, return trip for juice, sit back down. Thought lost down back of sofa.

Attention to Detail

We had to develop a character sketch over a few units…here’s mine:

He was a curl of sulk. One brown corduroy leg folded round the other, one hand twisting a lock of dark brown hair while the other twirled a spoon in his unfinished bowl of unidentifiable soup. He was lost in thought, a sensitive mouth pursed with despondence, dark lashes cast down as if salty tears may fall any moment. Extra seasoning, perhaps.

We were supposed to develop it further in 2.10 but I’m stopping there…

The Blank Page

This is all about developing ideas from a notebook and from prompts. I’m guessing there’s an assumption that we are doing short stories? Not sure! I have a first draft of a novel that I’m working on (and the next one buzzing in my head) so, whilst characters and scenes are always good to develop, I’m not lacking for ideas (just time!)

I liked the prompts “Emma said that…” or “I remember…” – then chop the words off the beginning. I think they will make useful exercises to revisit from time to time.

I’m going to post my radio-inspired story as a separate post…