Fresh Autumn Shoots

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Times have not been easy. For all sorts of reasons I have had to put the writing on hold. I never lost interest, I thought about it a lot, but my head has been full of other things. There were big plans for this autumn but they were plans that in the end did not materialise. The down-side of this is that I missed the chance to join my beloved ModPo (and be a Community TA which would have been a real treat). The up-side is that I have a space for writing again and this makes me happy!

So I have two plans:

  1. To do the new MOOC from the University of Iowa’s IWP How Writers Write Fiction: Storied Women. Their MOOCs have been such enjoyable online experiences in the past, I am really excited about this one.
  2. To do NaNoWriMo 2016. The concept has never exactly appealed to me – I enjoy writing, I’m not trying to compete against some target, the speed element is not appropriate. However, this year I’m embracing the challenge to come up with a novel from scratch and spew it out without being too precious. I will blog more on this but I’m already enjoying a month of planning and feel all fired up to write, write, write when the time comes.

The clash of the two is going to be interesting! Watch this space.

What does success look like (for your scene)?

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Life has very much intervened with my writing goals this year but instead of getting all down about that I’m celebrating the fact that I am still drawn back to it. Even though I still feel like I’m climbing a mountain and the summit’s not getting any closer, there’s no question of turning round and walking away. I still enjoy re-reading my rough drafts, I still like my characters, I want to finish. It’ll take as long as it takes.

I also find that breaks are good for a sense of perspective on your work when you come to re-read it. Now that I’m picking things back up again, one question has moved me on considerably with each scene: what does success look like for this scene? Before I do any more work on it, I’m sitting back and visualising everything that I wish it to achieve – the main emotional punch, the richness of setting, the advancement of plot, all the character traits I can reveal, plus any other twists and turns and embellishments I can pack in to make it as full an experience as possible. Only when I know what the best version of this scene would accomplish do I start to work on it again. It’s really helping me to make sure every scene has a real purpose and is earning its place in my word-count.

Anyone else got any scene-related tips that have worked well for revising?

Snooping on my own characters

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I’ve been spending a day or two re-reading my first draft with the sole task of making notes on my characters like a detective. Specifically: what is revealed and when about each one. It’s been extremely eye-opening! Of course I know a whole load about all of them but until now I had no clear idea of what actually ended up in the draft.

In practical terms, I had a Google Doc with each character’s name as a heading (with a Table of Contents up top for ease of jumping around…) and then I added bullet points underneath for every scene where there is something factual or descriptive revealed about a person (appearance, lifestyle, backstory). I’m not sketching out character development here – it’s all about sleuthing, trying to piece together who this person is from the clues that are given.

It’s immediately shown up my missed opportunities – a scene where a character appears and we learn nothing new about them at all (other than their development or reactions in that scene). It also showed up where I have left some key descriptors or back story way too late. Mistakes too -things I decided to change in one place but forgot to pick up on somewhere else.

So there’s plenty to focus on when I revise my scenes. I shall be trying to add more detail – small but telling – so every appearance by a character is used to flesh them out.I’m not planning on going in too heavy – my preference or style is to leave room for the reader to use their imagination rather than spell out every detail of appearance. I also hope to manipulate the details so that initial appearances may start to change or shift as the story goes on. I’ve also got to think about point of view – what would be noticed will be filtered by that of course. And then there’s character development – but that’s a whole other re-read of the draft I think!

I’m pretty happy with things so far but I can see how it can be a whole lot better! Which is kind of a good place to be…

And then it was all over…

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…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)

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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.