Wednesday, 9 October 2013

Five Provocations

Creative writing students often hope that there's secret truth about how to write that will be revealed once they start their course, and that published writers possess the keys to the kingdom. But the sorry truth is that there is no secret, there is no magic formula, there is no mysterious How To Write Fiction book that will suddenly make it easy (apart from this one, of course!).

The fact is, there are no rules for good writing. Matters of taste and fashion apart, good writing these days can be as structurally conventional and yet deeply satisfying as Colm Toibin's rewarding look at Henry James in The Master or as original and ground-breaking as Ali Smith's anti-novel Hotel World. So, in the absence of a secret formula, here are five rules to provoke you into thinking again about what and how you are writing.

Writing for stand up

In the early 90s I met Jimmy Tarbuck backstage at a show. I told him I was a struggling comic. "Good luck!" he said as he puffed on his cigar, "comedy is the hardest job in the world!"
I don't agree with Tarbuck. It's not as hard as being a fireman or a brain surgeon or in the SAS or (given that you work for 20 minutes a night and then get drunk), as hard as working in an office. Still, most people would rather eat their own liver with some fava beans and a nice Chianti than perform stand-up comedy.
At its best, stand-up comedy is the purest and most immediate medium for comedy and possibly even self-expression. What other outlet allows you to have an idea in the afternoon and then try it out that evening to an actual audience?

Writing Sketches

You may be tempted to crack straight on with a sitcom, but start small. Containing an idea in a two-minute sketch will teach you about structure, establishing characters and how to write pithy, economical dialogue.
It is easy to put on a sketch show at your college, pub or on the internet. A producer will be happier to read a page or two rather than a whole script and there are radio and TV shows which are looking for shorter sketch material, which means you have a much better chance of selling your work.
I started my professional career writing topical sketches for the now defunct Radio 4 show Weekending. I actually pretty much loathed the programme, as it was rather formulaic and rarely biting. Yet I stayed for a year, serving an apprenticeship that taught me many skills: from the mundane business of how to format a script (for this and further advice see to technical tricks such as how to avoid clunky exposition like:


Competent, effective, functional, engaging journalistic writing can be learnt, and some advice has been provided in this online series. Brilliant writing for newspapers has a plus factor which is hard to define and is not achieved by many. It comes down to style. Keith Waterhouse puts it this way: "What is this style? Why do some stories have it and others not? It would be fruitless to try to define it - as Fats Waller said when asked for a definition of jazz, 'Lady, if you have to ask, I can't tell you.' Obviously it demands flair, plus professionalism - two commodities that have never been in short supply in popular journalism. It demands experience, a quality that can be taken for granted in Fleet Street. For the rest, it consists simply of choosing a handful of words from the half million or so samples available, and arranging them in the best order."
Penultimate word to David Randall, whose Universal Journalist provides so much easily absorbed advice for the aspiring writer of journalism: "The pleasures of capturing something and pinning it down in words, your words, are immense. So too is the thrill of starting a piece with an assortment of disparate information and finding a pattern in it and new ideas about it as you write."

Tuesday, 8 October 2013


The contents page of a biography or memoir will give you an idea of the structure the author has used. Chapters in biographies are usually around 6-8,000 words in length but there are no hard and fast rules. The occasional short chapter can bring variety to the pace of the book. Some authors punctuate their chapters with short asides in which they pause from the main narrative to expand a particular theme without interrupting the narrative flow. Kathryn Hughes's The Short Life & Long Times of Mrs Beeton is laced with "interludes" in which she explores topics such as Mrs Beeton's awareness of the link between health and diet, and whether Mrs Beeton ruined British cooking. Each adds to the reader's knowledge of the period without causing the narrative drive to stall. Alternatively, you might prefer to weave themes into the central story.
Cradle to Grave
A biography typically starts with the subject's birth (it's surprising how many begin with a description of the weather) and continues in a roughly chronological order until their death. The advantage of this approach, which could equally apply to the history of a family, is that it is easy to follow. The downside is that it can appear plodding - especially if you're writing about someone who had an action-packed early life but whose later days were tame. One solution is to condense your treatment of the less exciting years but this can be difficult to achieve without making the book seem unbalanced. Alexander Masters turned the traditional form on its head in Stuart, A Life Backwards by telling the story in reverse chronological order.

Choosing your subject

You can't choose your relatives but you can choose which ones you write about. Deciding on whose lives you will research - whether as part of a family history or as a single biography - will depend on several factors. Ideally, your interests and skills should match theirs. If you want to write about a Nobel Prize winning economist but you failed maths GCSE you may struggle to appreciate their work. On the other hand, ignorance can be the ideal starting point from which to demystify a complicated subject.
Weigh up the type and availability of sources before choosing your subject. There should be enough material to allow you to get to know the person you're researching but not so much that it would take you your lifetime to read it. When Michael Holroyd was researching the life of George Bernard Shaw he began to think that Shaw, who wrote 10 letters every day of his adult life and had the benefit of shorthand and secretaries, could write more in a day than Holroyd could read. By contrast, if you're interested in an early professional footballer you may discover that he didn't write a single letter and you will have to find other ways of giving him a "voice" - perhaps by quoting from newspaper interviews or speaking to someone who knew him.
Much research can be carried out on the internet but you will still have to interview people, consult collections and probably make at least one trip to somewhere such as the National Archives (formerly the Public Record Office) in Kew or the Imperial War Museum in south London. How far you live from your main sources will affect the time and expense involved. If they are abroad both will rise and you may also face language difficulties.

Finding your voice

As you start to write your style will emerge. Before you begin you should have some idea of how much of you will appear in the book. If you're writing a memoir nearly all of it may be written in the first person and yours may be the only viewpoint that the reader glimpses. Margaret Forster makes this change in emphasis explicit half way through her family memoir, Hidden Lives. Just before this she has been telling the story from her mother's point of view and describing her concern about her precocious child. Then the tone changes:
"It was at this time, in 1943, when I was five, that my own real memory begins, real in the sense that I can not only recall actual events but can propel myself back into them, be there again in my Aunt Jean's room-and-kitchen, standing by the window at the back of the Buildings, staring out at the outside staircase and the tops of the wash-houses, while behind me Jean asks me what is the matter ... So I can stop now, writing in the third person, stop retelling stories I was told about the years before I was born, about when I was under five, stop splicing oral history with local history and start instead letting my own version of family lore come into play. I am there, at the centre. What a difference it makes, how dangerous it is." (page 132-133, pbk)
"I" is less common in a biography - unless you want to incorporate a sense of a personal quest - but there is just as much scope to write about a person's life from different viewpoints. If you're writing about a singer you might describe how members of the band reacted to their decision to leave it or how a fan greeted the news.

How Journalists write

Journalism is about telling people what they didn't know, says today's tutor Peter Cole, and making them want to know it.

Journalists usually refer to what they write as stories. Not articles or reports, occasionally pieces, but stories. This does not apply only to reporters but to everybody in the editorial chain, from desk editors, copy editors, specialist and sports writers to the editor him or herself. Words published in newspapers, on air or online are stories.
Stories sound interesting; reports sound dull. To some, stories mean fiction: "Tell me a story, mummy". Stories are tall and short, made up and true. True stories are about what happened. We tell stories in conversation, recounting experiences and events in which we took part or observed. The crucial thing about a story is that other people want to hear it, because it is interesting or entertaining. Otherwise the storyteller is a bore.

Monday, 7 October 2013

Characters and Viewpoint

The main characters in fiction for children and teenagers tend, not surprisingly, to be children and teenagers, though it's not hard to find exceptions, such as Philip Pullman's Once Upon a Time in the North. To write convincingly, whether in first- or third-person, you need to position yourself inside the head of one or more characters. In Tom's Midnight Garden, we share Tom's thoughts all the way: his frustration at being cooped up, his interest in the old grandfather clock, his surprise at finding that the midnight garden is different from the daytime one.
One way of getting a sense of your characters as rounded human beings, rather than as cardboard cut-outs, is to build them through questions and answers. For example: What's in her pocket? Who does she dislike, and why? What's her best subject at school? Who would she most like to get a text message from? What's she most anxious about? and so on. And it's important to hear your character speaking, and to see his or her body language.
Adults will almost inevitably appear, but children's writers are adept at getting rid of them, or at least keeping them on the sidelines, so that the children have to confront their own difficulties. Health and safety consciousness can curtail the activities of children in present-day stories of the real world, which may account for the huge amount of fantasy published in recent years; in imaginary settings, child characters can be magicians, warriors, seers, time-travellers, or whatever the author wants them to be. Similarly, children in historical fiction can plausibly face huge responsibilities and go on dangerous journeys with only their own resources to depend on.

Why write at all?

Writing for children is not an easy route to becoming published, today's tutor Linda Newbery explains why.

Books can change lives - we know that. And if you're lucky enough to write and publish books for children, there's the potential of changing young lives in various ways. Yours might be the book that turns a child on to reading, with a first experience of reading pleasure; maybe it's a favourite bedtime story, or the first book a child reads alone. It might give a child an absorbing new interest, or bring insight, reassurance, or the determination to confront a doubt or a fear. Yours might be the book that's loved literally to pieces, the story that's read and reread and almost known by heart. Your book, once published, will reach farther than you'll ever know.
These are powerful reasons for wanting to write for children, but let's get rid of some that aren't likely to get you far.

From Idea to Story

"Where do you get your ideas from?" Every author who gives talks to children or adults has been asked this question hundreds of times, and of course there's no simple answer. Ideas are everywhere - the trick is to recognise a promising one when you get it, and not let go. Your starting point may be something that's happened to you, or to someone you know; a news item; a fear, or a dream; something from the past; a fascinating character; a painting or poem; and of course our heads are crammed full of ideas and images from books we've read, stories we've heard and films we've seen. Several of my own books have begun with a particular place or atmosphere: an intriguing old house (Nevermore), a wartime airfield (Flightsend), an out-of-season seaside resort (The Sandfather).
When a promising idea grabs hold of you, hang on to it and see if you can turn it into a story, or at least the beginning of a story. You can build on it by asking yourself questions and thinking of the answers. Who? When? Why? will get you started; then more and more questions will follow: But why doesn't he tell anyone? Who could possibly help her? Where have his parents gone? What's he hiding from? At this stage, it's a game: you haven't committed yourself to anything, and can enjoy playing around with ideas and possibilities. When you're ready, you can start making notes on the characters and their situations

What's the story

Producing a novel should be fun even though it's difficult, says writer Robert Harris. And while there are guides to help you along the way, fundamentally it's all down to you.

Writing a novel - unlike operating a piece of heavy machinery, say, or cooking a chicken - is not a skill that can be taught. There is no standard way of doing it, just as there is no means of telling, while you're doing it, whether you're doing it well or badly. And merely because you've done it well once doesn't mean you can do it well again. The whole process is a mystery, devoid of rules or fairness.
That doesn't mean that guides like this are without value. On the contrary. Having the urge to write a novel, especially if you've yet to be published, is like having a medical condition impossible to mention in polite company - it's a relief simply to know there are fellow-sufferers out there.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

How to Write A Book - The Honest Truth By Scott Berkun

Every author I know gets asked the same question: How do you write a book?
It’s a simple question, but it causes unexpected problems. On the one hand, it’s nice to have people interested in something I do. If I told people I fixed toasters for a living, I doubt I’d get many inquires. People are curious about writing and that’s cool and flattering. Rock on.
But on the other hand, the hand involving people who ask because they have an inkling to do it themselves, is that writing books is a topic so old and so well trod by so many famous people that anyone who asks me, with the serious intent of discovering secret advice from my small brain and limited writing experience, is hard to take seriously.

The Snowflake Method For Designing A Novel

Writing a novel is easy. Writing a good novel is hard. That’s just life. If it were easy, we’d all be writing best-selling, prize-winning fiction.
Frankly, there are a thousand different people out there who can tell you how to write a novel. There are a thousand different methods. The best one for you is the one that works for you.
In this article, I’d like to share with you what works for me. I’ve published six novels and won about a dozen awards for my writing. I teach the craft of writing fiction at writing conferences all the time. One of my most popular lectures is this one: How to write a novel using what I call the “Snowflake Method.”
This page is the most popular one on my web site, and gets over a thousand page views per day, so you can guess that a lot of people find it useful. But you may not, and that’s fine by me. Look it over, decide what might work for you, and ignore the rest! If it makes you puke, I won’t be insulted. Different writers are different. If my methods get you rolling, I’ll be happy. I’ll make the best case I can for my way of organizing things, but you are the final judge of what works best for you. Have fun and . . . write your novel!
The Importance of Design

Good fiction doesn’t just happen, it is designed. You can do the design work before or after you write your novel. I’ve done it both ways and I strongly believe that doing it first is quicker and leads to a better result. Design is hard work, so it’s important to find a guiding principle early on. This article will give you a powerful metaphor to guide your design.
Our fundamental question is this: How do you design a novel?
For a number of years, I was a software architect designing large software projects. I write novels the same way I write software, using the “snowflake metaphor”. OK, what’s the snowflake metaphor? Before you go further, take a look at this cool web site.
snowflake imageAt the top of the page, you’ll see a cute pattern known as a snowflake fractal. Don’t tell anyone, but this is an important mathematical object that’s been widely studied. For our purposes, it’s just a cool sketch of a snowflake. If you scroll down that same web page a little, you’ll see a box with a large triangle in it and arrows underneath. If you press the right-arrow button repeatedly, you’ll see the steps used to create the snowflake. It doesn’t look much like a snowflake at first, but after a few steps, it starts looking more and more like one, until it’s done.
The first few steps look like this:
snowflake iteration 1snowflake iteration
snowflake iteration 3
snowflake iteration 4

I claim that that’s how you design a novel – you start small, then build stuff up until it looks like a story. Part of this is creative work, and I can’t teach you how to do that. Not here, anyway. But part of the work is just managing your creativity — getting it organized into a well-structured novel. That’s what I’d like to teach you here.
If you’re like most people, you spend a long time thinking about your novel before you ever start writing. You may do some research. You daydream about how the story’s going to work. You brainstorm. You start hearing the voices of different characters. You think about what the book’s about — the Deep Theme. This is an essential part of every book which I call “composting”. It’s an informal process and every writer does it differently. I’m going to assume that you know how to compost your story ideas and that you have already got a novel well-composted in your mind and that you’re ready to sit down and start writing that novel.

Essential Advice for Beginning Writers: An Interview with Kerri Majors

Kerri Majors is the editor and founder of YARN, the Young Adult Review Network, an online literary journal of YA short stories, essays, and poetry. As if this role doesn’t keep her busy enough, she is also the author of This Is Not a Writing Manual, a refreshing and candid memoir geared toward young writers. In it, she shares her own trials-by-fire, successes, disappointments, and thoughts on the writing life. This is the perfect book to share with the young writer in your life, and there are plenty of pearls of wisdom and inspiration for writers of all ages, beginners and veterans alike.
I sat down with Kerri to chat about what it means to be a writer, what makes for stand-out, top-notch fiction, and the writing mistakes she sees in her role as a fiction editor.
—by Rachel Randall, Managing Editor of Writer’s Digest Books

How to write a novel in 30 days

Writing a novel can be daunting. But introducing structure to the process can help you maintain momentum over the course of a month without hampering creativity

The outline you'll complete using the 30-day method will become a snapshot of your novel. After finishing a full outline, you should feel you've got the makings of an entire book (your story should feel complete, solid, exciting and satisfying) and you should be desperate to start writing the book itself.
This first draft outline is the equivalent to the first draft of a manuscript. Because you've revised it so thoroughly, it will read with all the completeness and excitement of a finished novel. Using this outline to write the first draft of your book (which, in almost all cases, will be the final draft, needing only minor editing and polishing) should be so easy you might even feel a little guilty about it. All the hard work will already have been done creating the outline.
Throughout this guide we'll work on the assumption that the first draft of your book isn't a fully completed draft in the traditional sense, but is instead a comprehensive outline – your first, whole glimpse of the book and a snapshot of what it will be once finished. The outline you create over the next 30 days will become the foundation upon which your entire novel will come to rest. This method is a way to lay out the full course of the story as it flows from beginning to end.