Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so on.
Were your novel set within living memory, in Britain, or the US, or somewhere else your potential readers know at first or at least second-hand, then you could write phrases like "Trafalgar Square Tube" or "Bridezilla" or "TV Evangelist", and they'll conjure up a full set of denotations and connotations which become part of your readers' experience of the novel. But for readers to feel the same density and complexity in life in 5th Century Athens or on the planet Zog, you can't rely on that existing knowledge: you're going to have to supply more of the cultural/physical hinterland. Another reason our books tend to be fat is that readers who want to spend time in another world want to buy into a full, substantial world: to sense that for each street the story takes them down, there's a whole village fanning out beyond it, for each moment in the chapel there's a whole history and geography of faith and heresy underpinning and overlying it that single prayer. Readers want to sense that every wardrobe or weapons store that's opened has twenty garments or guns in it, even if the only ones that matter are the right one the character fails to pick out because it belonged to their hated, abusive grandmother, and the wrong one they do pick out, which leads to disaster in thirty pages' time. But the reader doesn't know what those other eighteen will look like so, rather than do as cheap TV dramas do with their obviously empty suitcases, you're going to have to fill those cupboards.
Or are you? I'm reading Fahrenheit 451 at the moment, and it's startling what Ray Bradbury doesn't put in: what doesn't get explained, what doesn't get described, what actually isn't there at all. And yet I'm experiencing a vivid world; it's self-sufficient and convincing in how the characters struggle to operate in the only reality they know. If you asked me to free-write my experience of that world, it would be full of things Bradbury didn't put in it. (Which is probably why "the film of the book" - any book - always leaves fans of that book disappointed.) It's not coincidental that it's Bradbury who says, in Zen in the Art of Writing, "The artist learns what to leave out." Just because readers want to sense the presence of all those other streets and lives and faiths and garments and guns, doesn't mean that you should put them all in.
But Bradbury hasn't said, "The artist learns to leave everything out"; what we must learn is to know what the reader can and can't do without, in order to create the world for themselves. The art is in picking which glimpses you offer the reader of those other streets, that religion, those garments and guns. That almost certainly means you imagining or researching an awful lot more than ends up on the page, and then picking which bits of your material will have the best and strongest effect, while taking up the least space on the page. For more on how to pick the details that are evocative, without slowing up the story, click here. And finding the right kind of feedback and beta-readers is the way to grow the judgement of what to leave out, and the confidence to do it.
The other reason that all the imagining/researching too often ends up on the page, is that we too easily feel that any map smaller, and with fewer dimensions, than the world itself is imperfect (which it is, in strict logic: some things are left out). There's always another bit that could and "should" go in: another alleyway or heresy to write, another, subtly different garment which these people really did have ... That's perfectionism in the negative sense: the idea that if you don't create the perfect version, you've failed.
But all maps are selective: all mapmakers take decisions about what to include and how to show it. As important as learning what to leave out, is learning to forgive your (nearly) finished novel for all the things it's never going to include: for all the things it could have been, for all the roads you could have taken this project down and didn't, because you chose to go another way. Unless you're utterly incompetent and have no capacity at all to change how you write something, there will always be other ways you could write it. There is no such thing as a perfect novel in the absolute sense: there will always be avenues/heresies/weapons-stores you could write, which might be just as good, in a different way - but you've decided not to. So be it.
Posted at 02:41 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Craft, Creativity, Genres, Historical Fiction, Inspiration, Religion, Research, Science, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, THE TOOLKIT, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)
One of the things that happens, when you blog about Creative Writing PhDs, is that people ask you for advice - including the whole business of applying for the thing in the first place. As you'll know if you've read that earlier piece, a CW PhD is at once delightfully broad and free-form, and - well - nightmarishly broad and free-form. And, as ever, what gets said about other kinds of PhD often doesn't apply, or only applies in a mutatis mutandis sort of way, which wouldn't matter except that it can be very difficult to know exactly which bits of the normal way of doing things you need to mutate, and how.
So, for what it's worth, this is what I said to someone who asked me about their PhD proposal. I won't pretend that it's The Answer: all I know is that mine did get me onto my course, and, indeed, out the other end. But, as I was discussing in that earlier post, different universities have different regulations, and different departments have different interests, and that's before we've started worrying about how it works in Australia, or the US, or anywhere else. So do read what follows with that in mind. But I hope gives you an idea of what to think about.
When you're glaring at that blank paper or online form and panicking, I suggest that your first port of call is the coffee pot, your second any notes the form has about what you should cover, and your third the Creative Writing department you’re applying to. Ask to speak to your potential supervisor or someone else who supervises PhDs, because they’ll know what they want to see in a proposal, and should be willing to offer some guidelines. They do actually want good, coherent proposals, after all, so they can work out which of those are by good students who will finish the course. It’s in their interests to be helpful.
The next thing to do is to look at the regulations for the CW PhD itself, and think of them as a set of questions. How will you demonstrate the things they’re saying the PhD should have? It's a bit like when you apply for a job by reading what the spec is, and shape your CV and interview so as to explain just why you fulfil each part of it so well. For anything you really don't, then say something about how you'll set about filling that gap. And don't forget that at least some of the people assessing your application won't be writers,: try to make sure that you explain what you plan in terms which make academic sense to - say - a historian and a German Literature specialist.
So: what will the creative piece be, and how will you set about writing it? Will it needs substantial research, and how might you set about that? How will you reflect on your writing of it? What other creative writing will you explore and why? What other critical writing will you explore and why? What theory might be useful to you, as a reflective creative practitioner (it's worth trying to get a few academic buzz-words in) and why? For each of these three sources - creative, critical, theoretical - which will inform your creative piece, which your critical work, and which is relevant to your work on both? What do you hope to end up with, in terms of a discussion and conclusion which hasn't been made before? Then check that it's clear how your plans meet the criteria in the regs: for example "the critical and theoretical field associated with your genre" or any other such phrase?
Also, I'd suggest that being reasonably (if provisionally) clear about what you'll read and research makes it clear, by implication, how you're going to keep things manageable. One of the things which makes PhD students flounder most often is when the initial idea was simply too big, and too amorphous. Those deciding about your application will be thinking, first and last, "Will s/he finish?" How you describe your project should imply where the boundaries of it are. You also need a bibliography, and that's another important element: many academics get their first, quick sense of how good any student is by looking at the length of the bibliography and what kind of books are in it. Mine had about sixteen references for a 2,300 words statement, and it wasn't any too many.
You need to cover all those bases, but the CW PhD does have one thing in common with the others: it should all take place under the arc of the question you hope to explore. By definition a PhD has to say something original but, luckily a creative piece is original by definition: it is something that didn't exist before. But you should also be setting yourself up to say something in the commentary or exegisis/essay-type-piece which presents genuinely new understanding. That might be writing about a writer or an issue which has never been written about coherently before, or it might be by providing a new insight into stuff which has been written about, but not in the way you're going to. You don't have to know the answer now - finding that is what writing the PhD is all about - and it doesn't have to be a Yes Or No. Your question may be the more open sort of "What's going on when...?" (mine was), but it still needs to be well-defined and specific. It can be helpful to think in terms of Richard Sennet's idea of Problem Finding: you need to have (provisionally) found your problem, but not answered it.
Don’t be too daunted, though. You aren’t locked into what you say you want to do – everyone knows PhDs evolve and change as you work on them. The right problem to base your PhD on may not be the one you first thought it would be at all. The only thing about my proposal that stayed the same was the novel – and I have friends whose creative piece changed hugely too. The first few meetings with your supervisor will be all about thrashing out what you're actually planning to do. The main thing your proposal needs to demonstrate is that you DO have a huge and thought-through enthusiasm for a project, a clear plan of action which will mean you don’t get too lost along the way, and a goal of creating a coherent piece of critical as well as creative writing at the end.
As an ex- wannabe-actress, I actively enjoy the performing side of being an author, even if I do need plenty of Piglet-time afterwards before I can get back into writing-mode. So I'm looking forward to providing a Literary Lunchtime at the Ulster Hall in Belfast, on 27th November, and if you can make it, do come and say Hi afterwards. I've never been to Belfast, either, so I also hope I'll get a little time to have a look round.
It's always particularly easy and enjoyable when you're slotting into an established structure and venue, as with the Literary Lunchtimes, but I was surprised to find myself actively happy, a couple of weekends ago, as I turned off the A1(M) to Harrogate. It had been a long drive through Friday traffic from South East London, the sky over the Pennines was inky black and slashed with lightning, and there were rain-soaked roadworks. This was a brand-new festival, and I hadn't got much time left to to prepare an event I was chairing, billed as Wives of Tyrants: Tudors to Nazis. Why was I feeling so happy, and so looking forward to it?
As an author your only responsibility at an event is to be audible, interesting and well-mannered company for the audience and the other authors; it may not be easy, but it is relatively simple. Elizabeth Fremantle and Jane Thynne did it all just brilliantly. But when you're chairing, you're trying, in real-time, to find the coherence in two or more writers and their books and what they have to say about them; you're trying to draw out a discussion from them that the audience experiences as a well-shaped, coherent, intriguing and satisfying forty minutes; you're trying to hold back on what you might say about your own work because it's not about you, today; you're trying to fit in the readings and the questions, and still land the plane dead on 10.58 ... and you're nonetheless trying to avoid making the discussion so complete, or so focussed on the non-fiction interest, that the audience decide they don't need to buy the novels at all.
I love chairing, but in many ways it needs more prep, and can go more horribly wrong, than my own events. So it was nice, too, that the whole festival took place in the same, large, comfortable, agreeably Victorian hotel, The Old Swan. In the gaps where I was tired or had done enough talking and listening for the moment, I could just disappear upstairs to my own room and kick my shoes off. I don't think I once got that lost-in-translation feeling I usually get at some moment, where you eye the hospitality tray and its potlets of nasty UHT milk, and want to be at home.
The first Harrogate History Festival was the brainchild of Manda (MC) Scott, chair of the Historical Writers Association, after an earlier festival, and a marquee-full of books, were drowned in the floods. A roof and solid walls make life so much better, Manda decided, and who better to team up with than Harrogate, which has been hosting the crime writers' equivalent for a decade?
Another thing that made Harrogate such fun was how smoothly it ran: even the microphones were the nifty kind which curl round your ear and you're scarcely aware of. I don't think administrators and curators and committees get nearly enough gratitude when events go well, considering what a difference it makes to our performance if we can relax back onto a solid structure of the right things happening in the right places at the right times. My singer sister suffered hideously when no one remembered to tell her and the other singers till the day that a production of L'Orfeo was to be at Baroque pitch, but even with less critical issues there are always the times where no one knows where you should go, lack of publicity makes a thin audience, and no one's cordoned off the event space or silenced the coffee machine.
Yes, any festival's function, at one level, is to sell: sell tickets; sell books and more indirectly authors-as-brands; sell hotel rooms, drinks, nearby attractions, and next year's tickets. It worked, too: the bookroom was packed, 2000 people bought tickets - far more than even optimistic estimates - many events were sold out and all were full, and all is set for the second Harrogate History Festival in 2014. And the fact that all the authors and chairs must be paid has been built in from the beginning. But what really made Harrogate such a blast was that although we were all in economic relationships with each other, it genuinely felt like a communal event too: the gathering of the Clan History, if you like.
There were writers I already knew, from old hands like Robert Low to students from the Arvon course that Manda and I taught, blogging friends such as Sally Zigmond and Alison Morton, there were Self-Editing graduates, blog readers, strangers in the book room who bought my books, strangers in the greenroom who've written more than I ever shall, strangers I sat next to in other sessions and agreed or disagreed with. The jam-packed event on the Search for Richard III sparked interest in my own A Secret Alchemy; a Random Penguin publicist said something super-useful about the book I'm basing on this blog; historical crimewriter Andrew Taylor and I had an illuminating conversation, over a late-evening Chinese meal with Lloyd Shepherd and Robert Ryan in what used to be the Royal Baths, about the different ways writers work.
The more people I talked to, I realised as I drove away through the most deliciously sunny Sunday afternoon, the stronger a sense I had of a web which connects readers and writers of every kind to each other. We were all readers before we were writers, of course, and the web is spun from our endless, shared fascination with the Otherness and Sameness of the past to our own time. I'm glad we'll all be back in Harrogate this time next year.
Congratulations to Sophie Jonas-Hill for this delightful post, which won third prize in the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. Sophie wins a two-night writers' retreat at Retreats for You in Sheepwash, North Devon, where full board and friendly writerly company come as standard, and total silence and lunch-on-a-tray are offered with equal generosity.
What I loved about this post is that it takes a classic question which we're all very familiar with, and finds a way to express it freshly, and practically. And I always love connections between different kinds of creativity: so often they illuminate each other.
Where Do You Get Your Ideas From?
In my earlier life I made jewellery and wedding dresses, and in the quest for sales would take over-priced stands at exhibitions. Whatever the theme – weddings, jewellery, knitting (yes, knitting) – without fail every tenth person would ask:
‘Where d’you get your ideas from?’
Now I’m attempting to be a writer, this is still the question I’m most commonly asked by writers and non-writers alike, so I’ve decided to reveal all:
The answer is … I don’t know.
Oh, all right. What I mean is that I might be able to trace the seed of an idea retrospectively, but it’s not possible to collect a handful of such seeds and know which will flower. What I can do is outline some the things I use which have worked for me, and might work for you.
Not plagiarism but standing on the shoulders of giants. We’ve all read books, watched films or heard real life stories that strike a chord, so use them. Take from them themes, scenes, colours, moods and see what you can do with them. Merge opposite ideas, experiment, mix flesh with fowl and when you’ve done, it will be something of your own.
2) Listen to Radio 4 and the World Service.
Especially programs such as ‘From Our Own Correspondent’, Melvin Brag’s ‘In Our Time’ and any series which covers subjects you’ve never heard of before. It’s amazing what odd little gems they throw up, and if like me you live an interior life, it’s a window on a world. TV programs work less well; I think it’s because I’m a writer and radio is all about the words.
Walking should be a compulsory part of every creative writing course. You need to break the tyranny of the blank page and a steady pace over familiar ground will turn off that nagging ‘left brain’ and let things sneak in around the edges. I record ideas on my phone, so people think I’m talking to friends and not a nutter.
4) Be interested.
Everything is the end of a piece of string, pull it and see where it goes. Any idea can hunted down and researched so once you find you’re being drawn to something no matter how small, follow it. Use Pinterest and real world scrapbooks to keep your findings and never worry about where you’re going. You’ll get there.
5) Write what you know.
A hackneyed phrase often miss-represented; it does not mean write only about direct experience. A good novel stands and falls on its characters and how they react to the world you’ve put them in, and that comes from you. We’ve all been sad, we’ve all been happy in a thousand ways, so when your character is feeling those emotions, dig into your soul and know you’ve been there too.
Research – walk – talk, in a nut shell!
(Or hard work, I’m afraid!)
Sophie Jonas-Hill started writing when she was five, but her more serious work began at 39 when an idea for her first book fell un-bidden into her lap on January evening. Four books later and she's had one near miss; a full manuscript request received a fulsome and positive rejection, after the help and support she received at the 2012 Festival of Writing at York University, organized by the Writers Workshop. She was also long listed for the Bridport prize, which she's entered this year also and is currently working on a novel set in Wiemar Germany and waiting to try her novel set in occupied Paris at York this September.
When I first started dreaming Elizabeth Woodville, fifteen years ago, it seemed to me that the centre of her story was her marriage to Edward IV. But what was that marriage made of? And since writing a novel is "like remembering something that never happened", as the novelist Siri Hustvedt says, how could I write Elysabeth as if I could remember her, so that readers, too, would feel she was someone they knew?
If you want to read how I remembered her in full, you can buy or download my novel A Secret Alchemy at the Independent Bookseller's site The Hive here, or on Amazon here. If you're interested in what I did to bring her alive, read on. And my Pinterest board for A Secret Alchemy is here.
To me, Elysabeth Wydvil isn't so much a White Queen, as a Silver Queen: silver as one half of the alchemical marriage. That idea of alchemy was so important in how the late medieval world felt and saw itself - and it's how Edward IV spoke of his kingship, weaving magic to make his usurped throne secure. Gold and Silver, Light and Dark, White and Red ... In A Secret Alchemy, all the marriages which work, in the medieval and the modern strands of the novel, are light/dark pairs. And it seemed to me, too, that Elysabeth having been married before might explain something else: why Edward never got bored with her. Unlike the usual kind of queen - a virgin, foreign princess who'd never met her husband - Elysabeth knew what she was about, when it came to her second wedding night.
I had learnt in years of wedlock what it seemed he had not in his bachelorhood, not even from all those yielding women: how desire, held in check, feeds on itself and grows. If I could hold him back ... He raised his head, and looked towards the bed. ‘You have Melusina to guard you,’ he said seeing the hangings. ‘Melusina the dragon, not the snake, with her wings and her double tail.’
‘Yes. My mother bespoke it of the Sisters at Lincoln for ... my first marriage, to help get me with child.’
Even as I said the words I wished them unsaid. But he smiled. ‘You are beauty itself as you are. But you must have been more beautiful still with a great belly.’ He pressed a hand there. ‘God willing, I will fill you with a fair prince. Would that your ancestress could know how her task is fulfilled in us, that golden sun and silver moon should unite in the secretum secretorum, and bring forth peace and prosperity. For you are my lady moon.’
‘And you are my lord the sun,’ I said, of course. I said it well: the words rang like a charm in the ever-brightening quiet, like a spell I did not know I could cast. I slid my smock off one shoulder, and slowly he reached and slipped it off the other so that it dropped to my feet.
But such pleasures had to come second, in daily life, to the business of surviving in the ruthless realpolitik of the Wars of the Roses. Elysabeth was bred up "to be the wife of some good knight" in the family business of her class: owning land, serving the king's government, in return for being granted power. Edward, too, was bred for the same business on a grander scale, as the eldest son of the Duke of York. They were cut from the same cloth, and joined in the family business of running the kingdom. And that family business included killing family members, if the safety of the throne demanded it. Edward ordered the murder of the deposed Henry VI in the Tower of London, which was commanded by his young brother Richard of Gloucester. Four years later, their other brother George of Clarence finally betrayed them once too often. Edward delayed for weeks before he signed the death warrant. I imagined Elysabeth slipping out of her own apartments, on the night of the execution, to go to him.
From somewhere close by came a giggle. The sound was like a blow in the face.
‘No, Ysa, that is not what you think,’ said Edward
‘No ... Oh, for God’s sake, you know how it is with me! If it were a woman of mine, it would still mean nothing, and you know it!’
I pressed down my hurt.
He turned away. ‘Besides, it’s no woman, it’s young Hatton’s catamite. Will you drink Rhenish? Or would you have me call for a different wine?’
‘No, no. A little Rhenish, if you please, my lord.’
He filled two cups, and handed one to me. He did not pick up his own, but held out his right hand to me, palm up. ‘And do you know what this hand has done?’
‘It has signed the warrant,’ I said.
‘The lawful warrant of execution of the sentence that His Grace the Duke of Clarence be put to death.’
‘Of my brother. I have killed my brother.’
‘You had no choice.’
‘Oh, but I had, Ysa. I could have chosen as I chose before.’ He turned away, then drank deep, staring into the fire.
‘You chose to trust him and he betrayed you, time and time again.’ The Rhenish was beginning to warm my cheeks, but my hands were chill. I held them to the fire. ‘Many men – many kings – would not have done so much. You gave him everything he wanted, and still he did as he did. The time had come to finish it. Now it is finished.’
He spoke low, as if to the infernal depths of the fire. ‘Perhaps if Edmund had not been killed ...’
‘Perhaps. Who is to say? We cannot know what might have been.’
He raised his head. ‘By God, you’re like your brother Antony when you speak thus. Are you a philosopher now, Ysa?’
‘No, indeed I am not.’
He smiled. ‘I think you were born to be a queen.’ He poured us both more wine. ‘Did you know it when you were a little girl?’
‘No. I knew my fate would be as it first appeared: to be the wife of some good knight.’ I drank. The Rhenish smelt of flowers. ‘And so I was. Though sometimes my father would jest that my mother might indeed have been a queen by her first husband, Henry of Lancaster's uncle, were it not for—’ I stopped, but contrived to hold my face in the likeness of jesting.
He was not deceived. ‘Were it not for Henry?’
I was silent.
‘So I am twice a murderer?’
‘No!’ I cried. ‘These matters must be ended, by whatever means is best. Finished. Sometimes it is in battle. Sometimes it is ... otherwise. Great matters – the business of a kingdom, a man’s business, and a man’s end ...’ I got up from my chair and moved towards him, slowly enough to hold his gaze. ‘And you are a man, sire. A man, and more.’ I put my hand up to his cheek. It was full and slack these days, cracked with sun and cold, stained with drinking. But it was still gold as well as red that glittered harshly along his jaw, and in his neck and collarbone the muscles were thick under my fingers. I saw his eyes arrested, and rejoiced even as I turned my head so that the candlelight might catch my cheek and the lock of hair that had escaped my cap and fallen on my breast. ‘A man, and a king.’
But, as you may have realised, A Secret Alchemy isn't just Elysabeth's story. It's also the story of her brother Antony, who was surrogate father to her son, Edward, the older of the Princes in the Tower. And it's the story of Una Pryor, a historian in our own time, newly widowed, who starts the book planning to write a history of Elizabeth and Antony. In researching them, she finds a new happiness, but she also realises something fundamental has changed:
It isn’t that I don’t know what happened. With patience it’s possible to leave few stones unturned, though even now there may be more scraps to be ferreted out, or stumbled on as we did the letter, more connections to see, more conclusions to reach. The gaps you have to bridge do get smaller.
But bridging gaps isn’t what I want to do, not any more. ‘You have to make it whole,’ said Mark.
Perhaps I’ve found some kind of answer, some way of telling the truth in the blanks between the facts where, till now, there’s been nothing. A way that is neither truth nor falsehood but is whole. But do I dare? There are no authorities for this, no references and precedents and peer-reviewed journals; no familiar track with familiar rules. My only authority is what I choose to write. The freedom’s frightening, the track, such as it is, is strange: Narrow Street, East Smithfield and the Chantry, St Albans and Grafton, from Astley to Pontefract and York and thence to Sheriff Hutton, and a letter that was there all the time...
I know the journey has a beginning, a middle and an end, that it is whole, but Anthony and Elizabeth could not. To them it was a pilgrimage: the past was past, the future unknown. All they had was the moment.
At each moment – each station of the cross – they’re no more beyond my reach than Adam is. But there’s only one way to reach them, I’ve been thinking, slowly and uncertainly since yesterday: only one way. I must dare to do it this way, because otherwise I’ll never reach them.
In writing A Secret Alchemy, Una's search for Elysabeth became mine, as I described in Bloody Battles and Pleasure Palaces, because in writing a novel about real historical characters that is, in a way, what you're doing: creating memories that you don't have. You're re-imagining and re-recreating a life by taking that what we know, and what we find out, and what we imagine, and making a single tapestry of past and present.
And that's the challenge, and that's what, as a writer, you always hope you got right. Maybe I have. I was certainly delighted when Sarah Vine said of A Secret Alchemy, in The Times, that it's woven from "the gossamer-thin threads of memory, real and imagined ... There are many twists and turns in this tale, some of them real, some of them not; together they add up to a spellbinding whole."
I've blogged before, here and elsewhere, about writing A Secret Alchemy, and for a roundup of those posts, and another extract, click through to my post about "Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair".
Academic writing scares many people who have lots of good things and ideas to put forward. Others have been told they should write better without being helped to understand how. But it's not magic and it's not rocket science; it's a set of skills, and you can learn them. Through my first year as a Royal Literary Fund Fellow at Goldsmiths, I've been shaking out and clarifying my ideas of how academic writing does and should work, with a little - or rather, a lot - of help from the RLF's own resources. Not everyone will agree on which are more important, and disciplines do vary, in both their nature, and their traditions and current forms: an account of an astronomical observation is different from a reflective essay on dance therapy casework. But there are plenty of overall, general ideas which it helps immensely to understand and, suitably adjusted, many of them will help with other kinds of non-fiction writing: reports, articles and talks. So here are the things I find myself exploring with students over and over again; I hope they help you.
If you're panicking, procrastinating from fear, or just in a muddle, take a proper break, even if it's only short. Another twenty minutes of panic-stricken cutting and pasting won't get you a better grade. Twenty minute's coffee, walk and deep breathing just might.
Academic thinking is almost always a process of relating the particular, through the general, to the theoretical, and vice versa. How is the behaviour of your art therapy client Jesse, and that of your colleagues' different clients, explained by your understanding of Maslow's hierarchy of needs, or would another theory fit Jesse better? How does the theory of evolution predict what will happen to the AIDS virus in the population of Africa in general, and Johannesburg in particular, and does the data coming in confirm or contradict those predictions?
Work out the spine of your essay: the route you're taking through the topic. The simple, safe spine is to take one of the main things you're discussing at a time - one period, one country, one text, one theory - and say everything that needs saying about that one, before moving onto the next. The more fruitful option may be to pull out topics or themes (economics, politics, terrain; imagery, language, structure) or arguments (the different theories; the different historical contexts;) and discuss all your periods, texts or countries together under one heading (topic number one; theory number one), and then do the same for the next heading. Having a spine of topics, themes or arguments helps you go beyond merely describing what goes on in that country or that text, and encourages you to analyse the hows and the whys of what's going on, because it highlights the differences between them.
Write the first draft for yourself, to work out what you think, and the second draft for your reader, who doesn't yet know what you're trying to say.
Reading aloud is your friend, because in order to speak the words your brain has to understand the sense of them, and get its tongue round the shape and rhythm of the sentences. Either your mind or your tongue will trip up if the sentence doesn't make sense, or isn't written in manageable units of meaning. It's therefore also handy for spotting typos, repetitions and gaps, and where the punctuation should be.
The introduction is a map of the essay, so use drafting it as a way of thinking about what you're going to do but, when you've finished the essay, check the introduction-map is still accurate. It should probably include:
Each paragraph in the body of the essay is the next vertebra of the spine, the next stage on the route: one idea or piece of your discussion. The first sentence - the "topic sentence" - is a signpost for what we're going to be discussing: "Betrayal is a theme which runs throughout Hamlet from the moment that Old Hamlet reveals that he was murdered." Then each sentence leads to the next ("Hamlet sets up the Play scene to embody this betrayal in the hope of Claudius betraying himself"). The last sentence sums it up and, ideally, holds out a link to the beginning of the next paragraph/topic. So, if you finish with "... and the ultimate betrayal, for Hamlet, is Gertrude's marriage to Claudius", the next paragraph could start, "This marriage, however, also embodies the play's exploration of the inconstancy of women..." and then we're off into that topic.
The conclusion pulls together the big, general idea or theme that you want us to take away and sets it out. It will have emerged in stages along the way, but here you make it clear in a way that answers the question or implied question in the essay title. Don't bring in new material or ideas: if you find yourself wanting to, then go back and fit them into the body of the essay.
Don't be afraid to write plainly; it helps you to think clearly. The very best in your discipline think well and write well. They're only difficult to understand inasmuch as the ideas are difficult. Good thinkers who are more difficult to understand than they need be are, by definition, not the best in your discipline. Try to notice what you're reading in terms of good and bad writing: Who makes difficult things clear? Who makes you fight through how it's written before you know if an idea is useful and interesting or not? Who's a pleasure to read? How does each make their sentences work, to have that effect? This will help to train your own intuitions for your own writing. Click here for some examples of good and bad writing.
Formal writing is not the same as fancy writing. What matters is precision. Casual language is inexact, but so are elaborate words used wrongly or vaguely. Use technical and abstract terms where you must, look them up to check they really do mean what you think they do, and surround them with clear and simple ones which you are also using accurately. There's no shame in looking those up too; professional writers do it all the time, just as professional writers write second and third and tenth drafts, to get the words and the argument to say exactly what they want them to.
Beware of hidden metaphors: "This action unleashed a flood of hidden opposition which burned everyone implicated in it", has three explicit metaphors (unleashed, flood, burned), none of which make sense with the other. It also has three figurative words which aren't quite metaphors, but do have an underlying physical origin, which confuses things even more (hidden, opposition, implicated).
Beware of value-laden words: You're in a court of law, but you're not making a case for the prosecution, you're the judge explaining what actually happened to the jury, as fairly as possible, so they can decide if the case is proved. Not "Napoleon was a tyrant so he made a cruel decision," but "Napoleon decided that this rebellion must be put down with exemplary force". You are also the jury, of course, since it's your job to come to a conclusion.
Beware of ordinary words used in technical ways, especially adjectives co-opted by your discipline as abstract nouns. "...we need to examine the many manifestations of the public which shaped nineteenth-century politics..." (Rappaport, 2001, p.78) makes me stop to ask "the public what?", before realising it's an abstract concept: "the Public [sphere]". It's not that you should never use such terms, but you need to avoid wrong-footing the reader and so making the argument stumble.
Embody abstracts ideas in concrete forms where you can because human brains deal more easily in concrete things. "[...] this is a history of the shapers more than the shaped" (Schama, 1987 , p.6) is a much more effective way of making a statement than "By concentrating on how economic power is deployed by dominant global actors, analysts of globalizing processes have largely overlooked the ways in which quotidian acts such as consumer demand across the globe influence economic relations, however asymmetrical those relationships might be.". (Prestholdt, 2004, p.755) They mean almost exactly the same thing, and the more concrete one - the Schama - is also much shorter. Why wouldn't you write that way where you can?
Follow your discipline in whether you can use "I". Even if you're allowed to use it, keep "I think" and the like for the times when you are clearly stating your action or judgements in shaping this argument. Then back up why you're doing and saying this.
Remember "Somebody Did Something". In English the meaning of a sentence is built into the shape subject + verb + object. If your sentence is in a muddle, check that each chunk of it has that shape.
Verbs are your friend in trying to write clearly and with energy, especially because it's so important to avoid car-crashes of nouns.
Long sentences are fine when they're built as a series of clear and clearly-related units. For this, commas, colons and semi-colons are your friends, because they help to make those units of meaning clear, and to relate them to each other in a way that short separate sentences can't. And do exploit the connecting words which can express how the two units are related: but, and, in contrast, at the same time, instead of, whereas, subsequently...
Keep the main verb phrase towards the beginning of the sentence. Don't make the reader wait too long to find out what the main somebody-did-something of your sentence will be. In the sentence about rebels, the first version is a single unit, with a long car-crash of nouns before we get to the one main verb, "conflicted". The second version is three separate short units of somebody-did-something, and it's clear as a bell.
Avoid passive voice even when you're having to leave out "I". In other words, avoid "Somebody had something done to them" where you can.
And then you can link several clear, shortish units of "somebody did something" together, to make an actual chain of cause-and-effect:
Tell the story in the order in which it happened, unless you've got good reasons not to, because that's how humans experience things - forwards in time - so that's how they tell stories too. Making the main point first is usually a good idea, not least because it means the main somebody-did-something comes early on. But if that main point is the last thing to happen in the story things easily get confused and confusing:
Notice how after the first section, the rest of the sentence goes straight back to the beginning and then tells the story forwards from that point on. And notice the proper use of the past perfect - "when the government had ... passed laws" - so we're safely reading this as having happened before the main "now" of the sentence, which is about shop prices in 1877.
And, finally, I've assembled a small collection of short extracts of good and bad academic writing, so I'll repeat the link here which is also further up. Have a look at them, and try to decide why the good ones work, and how the less-good ones could work better.
References, because in academic writing everything that's said is either assumed to be the writer's, or must be traceable:
Prestholdt, Jeremy, ‘On the Global Repercussions of East African Consumerism’, American Historical Review 109 (3) 2004 pp.755-81
Rappaport, Erika Diane, Shopping for Pleasure, Princeton, Princeton University Press 2001
Schama, Simon, The Embarrassment of Riches, New York, Vintage 1987
Posted at 02:40 PM in A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Academic Writing, Craft, Research, Teaching Writing, THE ROUND TABLE, THE WORKBENCH, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle. Their problems can be anything from "What does 'critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction or I won't get funding". I am cooking up a post of my Ten Top Tips for Academic Writing but, meanwhile, here's a tweaked version of a piece I wrote for the RLF Fellow's own forum, about my first impressions of the post. And since then I've set out my Twenty Top Tips for Academic Writing, which have emerged from my experience.
Unlike some brand-new, nervous RLF Fellows, I was already familiar with the institution: Goldsmith’s is a small, compact campus three urban miles from home. It’s only concerned with the arts, humanities and social sciences, and I did my own PhD in Creative Writing there not so long ago. I also taught there for a year, so today’s undergraduates, from those who live and breathe Theory, to those whose sentences would be impressive in a nine year old, aren’t too much of a shock.
But that doesn’t mean I wasn’t brand new and nervous about the post. My allergy to passive voice and Germanic traffic jams of nouns contradicts so much that the students must read, while what I know about Media could be written in the margin of a vintage Radio Times. But the latter limitation, as everyone tells you, is an advantage: the easiest teaching trick I know is to say, “Tell me about it,” because almost invariably you can then say, “See? You do know what you’re talking about.” The second easiest is to say, “Write the first draft for yourself, and the second for your reader.” And the third is to explain how to shake an essay question out into an essay structure.
So, five times a day someone walks in looking stressed and un-confident, and (nearly) five times a day someone walks out looking better. Sometimes amazingly better: if I wanted a measure of how likely a student is to succeed it would be in how well they can take tools I’ve offered, and use them on their own subject, in their own way. Interestingly, it’s by no means always the most polished-seeming students who have that kind of intelligence. Some others are always going to struggle, but it's a very rare student indeed who made no progress at all despite my efforts and those of my fellow Fellow, playwright Annie Caulfield. And it can make a huge difference just to say, “No, you’re not the only one who finds essay-writing baffling and difficult. But it’s not magic, it’s just a set of skills that people can learn, and I know you can learn them too.”
Sometimes the most useful thing you can do is just give a student 50 minutes of your undivided attention. I'm not in their department, I'm not judging them, I'm not reporting to anyone, and in my RLF room there's no such thing as embarrassing ignorance or a stupid question. About a third to a half are foreign students, and though we're not EFL specialists and don't offer that kind of help, it's immensely interesting unpicking the nuances of English which are beyond the reaches of normal Language teaching - and beyond the reach of some native-English speakers, too. It's often the lack of micro-attention to language which is stopping the student getting the grades their understanding of their discipline deserves, and having to explain the nuances I take for granted makes me think about my own medium for myself.
All in all, it’s one of the most rewarding jobs I’ve ever had, not just because you can make such a difference by such straightforward means, but because the range of subjects and levels is pure joy for my novelist’s, fox-type brain. From the FSA Photographers of the American Depression, to the patterns and psychologies of online consumption of foreign TV, and the writing of History in Ancient Greece, I get to do kinds of thinking and play with stuff that novels never offer me. I've helped with poetry for an installation and case studies for various Therapies, number-crunching for Anthropology, literature reviews for Music and structure for absolutely everything. Yes, I’m really rather familiar with that particular first-year Social Work essay, let alone comma splices and dangling modifiers, but each student is different. And that makes all the difference.
It must be spring in the air: I'm fantastically busy on various fronts, but some of them might be relevant to all you lovely blog-readers, so here goes.
Since October I've been absolutely loving my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths; it's been some of the most rewarding and enjoyable teaching I've ever done, so I'm delighted that playwright Annie Caulfield and I will again be there next year. Our job is to help with academic writing across the full spectrum of the College, from first years to PhDs and staff, from Fine Art to Social Work and Anthropology. I am planning an occasional series on academic writing, since I know quite a few blog-readers would be interested. And the RLF's website has excellent resources on academic writing, although you do need to do a bit of digging to find it all.
The York Festival of Writing 2013 is on the 13-15th September. I'll be there as usual - as will Debi, several hundred writers, and a hundred or so authors, agents and publishers - and I'll be teaching a half-day mini-course and several workshops, although exactly what hasn't yet been settled (did I say I've been a bit busy?). It's always a fantastic weekend, and if you want to get the flavour, there's a great video here, which was made last year.
I've been playing around with Pinterest, assembling a "board" each for The Mathematics of Love, and A Secret Alchemy. The idea is partly to have somewhere for readers who are tickled by the real life correspondences in the novels, and partly perhaps to pick up the occasional interest from someone browsing Pinterest who didn't know that my novels existed. The boards are very much work-in-progress, and I've sometimes raged against the assumption that novels simply represent Real Stuff. But I shall gently add more images, since it's a lot of fun, perfect procrastination, and I do feel they're adding something that hasn't quite been get-attable before.
Some of my friends do boards for works-in-progress, but I don't talk detail about what I'm working on. That's partly because once I start I'm not very good at stopping and I'm fond of my friends, and partly so as not to "talk it out". But most of all it's because other people's reactions at this thinking-dreaming stage often not helpful, however well-intentioned or merely interested.
But when I got onto Pinterest I discovered that you can have "secret" boards, which only you can see. And compared to files on the PC and folders on my desk, it's a really easy way to collect together images, complete with links to their origins, and see them all at once. So I've made a secret board for the WIP and, when the W is no longer in P, I shall simply turn the board to "public".
At the Historical Novel Society Conference 2012, I took part in a panel discussion called The Lying Art: Tensions and Issues at the Fact/Fiction Interface, and it was recorded. The authors on the panel were Elizabeth Chadwick, Ian Mortimer (when he's being a historian, James Forrester when he's being a novelist), Barbara Ewing, Daisy Godwin, Harry Sidebottom and yours truly, and it was a really lively discussion with lots of disagreeing!
Obviously it might interest anyone writing historical fiction, but it's also very relevant to anyone who's grappling with the perennial questions that come up when you're using real factual material in your fiction - what you must be faithful to, what you can change, what you can ignore.
You may know that I co-teach an online course on Self-Editing Your Novel with Debi Alper. It's a six-week course based on a private bit of the Writers' Workshop Word Cloud. We developed it together, over a hundred writers have "graduated" from it, and this week we're in the thick of the seventh course. As ever, it's being huge fun, and then on a thread which a Word Clouder started about writing courses in general, our course was mentioned. And such was the reaction from graduates that I can't resist posting a link to what they said here. And one of the participants last time has even drawn a comic strip to show (and tell) what she got from it.
and finally...We're coming up to the 500th Postiversary on This Itch of Writing - at least, we are if you don't count the various posts that were just administrative. Once I'd recovered from the shock of realising that this has actually happened - can it really be? - I decided to have a competition to celebrate, and some kind colleagues have come up with some fantastic prizes. But did I mention that I'm horribly busy? At least until the end of term for my RLF Fellowship at Goldsmiths, and the end of the Open University Creative Writing Course A215, that is. So, since the whole point of blogging is that I can fit it round the rest of my life, it'll be a few weeks until I actually post the competition. Watch this space...
Posted at 11:44 PM in A Secret Alchemy, A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Blog and blogging, Competitions, Events, Historical Fiction, Photography, Research, Teaching Writing, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE IDENTITY CARD, The Mathematics of Love, THE ROUND TABLE, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, Writing, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
Q: I'm being kept up at night by one rejection; four full MS are still out there. The agent in question is super starry and it sounds like she gave my MS a thorough reading. She said some nice things, even said I nailed some things. But she said she didn't get a new perspective, neither was she challenged. I've also come across a lot of stuff about risk in writing. I am now wondering more generally where I actually take personal risks, and finding that I'm not doing it much. I guess the book that is looking for a home took a long time in the writing and is probably the 8th iteration of the original idea, so what might have been a new perspective is old hat. But more seriously the things that have affected me in life seem so far in the distance that to bring them up as material feels like a weird contrivance. My second novel is halfway done at least in draft format and although it has plenty (I think) in terms of new perspective I don't feel exposed in the writing of it - not really. Yeah, I'm trying stuff with voice but everyone is doing that to some extent. I know writers who only ever write about their lives and relationships. I don't think that's me so much. Am I alone?
A: I think it's easy to be vague and touchy-feely (or macho and suffering-artiste-ish) about how it's necessary to dare all and bare all if you want to write well, but I'm not sure it's the whole truth. It certainly isn't a guarantee of good writing that the original source experiences were difficult or powerful. But, conversely, it's not a guarantee of bad writing that they weren't, or that you didn't have them. And heaven help any of you writers if you felt tied in to writing about your own lives and relationships - how boring would that be?
Having said that, I do think that for most of us, the best writing comes from places and materials which are really potent for us. That potency may be transmuted into other characters and situations, other worlds, other times, but it still connects with something quite fundamental inside ourselves. If you're not trying to find some kind of direct emotional (in the broad sense) connection with the story you're telling, then you're not going to find and write what's particular and individual and therefore real-seeming about this story. As John Gardner puts it, it's by the convincingness of the particularity of the story, that you persuade the reader to buy into the whole thing even though it's fiction. And the more individual and particular to you it is, the more likely it is to challenge and surprise a reader, and offer them a new perspective. That direct connection needn't be dressed in the settings and relationships of your own life, but even if it's not there at the start of your thinking about "what if...", you do need to find it as you work.
So it's easy to assume - non-writers do assume - that the best writing comes from the newest, closest, most vivid (and so probably painful) stuff. But you also need distance. When Emma has set out to write a story which will enable her to explore something pressing and important to her, it doesn't work. Sometimes it really is too raw: she's dodging being really honest about something difficult. Sometimes it's that the project gets lumbered with her need to write about that stuff, and the needs of the stuff trump the needs of the project. Sometimes it's that this stuff is so potent for her that she just doesn't realise she hasn't done enough for the reader: readers who don't find this particular situation inherently potent may need more help to find these characters-in-action convincing. But one way or another, her relationship to the stuff messes with her writerly compass.
For Emma, the necessary distance only comes with time, and/or when the project is something else. Then, the material from experience has no more and no less status than any other material, as she was thinking about in Yours to Remember, Mine to Forget. Then, the potency of the experience supplies your writing-engine with high-octane fuel, if you're willing to let it. But it is just fuel; it's the project that decides its own direction and organisation, and what fuel it needs and what it doesn't. As Nora Ephron said, she did finally make a happy marriage, but she only found a way to write about happy marriages by writing about cooking, in Julie & Julia.
So I don't think that bringing up the distant past in order to use it as fuel for the present project is necessarily a contrivance; I think it's probably the best way to use it. Only people who don't understand the distance thing (read: non-writers) and assume that there's a direct correlation between how recent the experience is, and the how immediate the story feels, will think it's contrived or inauthentic. The rest of us (read: writers) know that the sliver of ice in the heart is necessary: it's what provides the distance - the duality we need - in order to re-experience and re-create experience in the service of the story.
If what the agent says resonates with you, and you want to do something about it, I wonder if somewhere in the iterations that deep, and live connection with your concerns has ... not exactly gone, but weakened. Perhaps you've so taken its presence for granted, that you haven't spotted that it's been nibbled away (at least for some readers) as you've worked at other things? Perhaps as things changed in the novel and you were concerned with the mechanics of cutting it apart and solving problems and stitching everything back up again, you didn't go looking to connect with that original fuel-source afresh.
Much-revised novels are like the proverbial knife which has had four new handles and three new blades. It is in some sense the same knife, but the question is, do both handle and blade still work together to cut the same things with the same precision? And if not, do they cut different but just as good things with the same precision? It's the last bit which can get lost.
As to whether you don't feel exposed in the new novel - and whether that matters... It could be that you're suffering from Submission Blight: that awful self-consciousness that comes over so many writers when their work is somewhere out there, being judged, from the first competition entry to the reviews of your twentieth novel. Submission Blight is an auto-immune disease which allows your Inner Critic to get the upper hand.
It could be that the new, different project doesn't make it as clear as the first one did, where you might find the most powerful, new material for it - inside yourself, or out there in the world. That needn't mean it's the wrong project, just that you haven't yet seen which large and small aspects of the story offer that scope.
Or, yes, it could be that the piece is full of things which could work better - be better written, more powerful, more challenging for the reader, more radical in perspective - but you've decided, consciously or unconsciously, not to do them that way. There are a hundred thousand choices of that sort in any novel, and you do have to choose. There are always perfectly sensible reasons for choosing not to go down a road which you may not even be acknowledging to yourself is difficult for emotional, political or practical reasons. You might be right that something's too raw still and must wait for another couple of novels. You might be right that drawing on something from a long time ago might seem contrived. You might be right that a ton of research would be needed and you're not sure you could handle the material anyway. You might be right that this topic is one which can't be a sideshow in a novel, but only the main subject, and that's a different novel.
Or you might not be right. How do you tell? I'm not sure you can, although shying furiously and desperately away from an idea is a sure sign of its potency for you - and therefore potentially for the novel. Whether it would be right to put that potency to the service of this novel is a different decision, and has to be controlled by your overall sense of what this novel is. It might be too rich: like putting rocket fuel into a Morris Minor and watching it explode into shards. But certainly on a smaller scale, I do think a willingness to be as open and naked to the writerly demands of the situations in your story is very important. And that can be difficult to do, especially if in other areas of life things aren't being so easy at the moment. But readers know, instinctively if not consciously, when you're pulling your punches in a piece of writing. Even when the only person you're not hurting is yourself.
Emma Adds: Re-reading Jerusha's reply, and seeing the comments, has made me think of a couple of points. First, that when Jerusha's talking about "emotional connections" she doesn't just mean heartbreak, or love. She also means things like fear, triumph, excitement, frustration. You can no more write a good thriller if you're not willing to find those places in yourself and let them fuel your story, than you can write good mumlit if you're not willing to find the places where the stuff of family life lives.
Second, Jerusha is careful about confidentiality, so it's I who can produce an example of how you don't need to have experienced a trauma directly, to evoke it effectively. The first time I wrote about a divorce I was happily married. Years later, after I was divorced, I came across that MS again, and realised I'd got it right. I'd imagined how it feels by spinning together the usual threads from which we all make our stories: what I knew about marriage, and breaking up with boyfriends, and friends' experience, and things I'd read in fiction and non-fiction. Out of that - it turned out - I had spun together a convincing rope of story, even though no strand in it came from precisely that situation. And that was the day I realised that, despite having had a very ordinary and boringly un-dreadful life, I really could be a writer.
Posted at 01:09 AM in A Writer's Life, Academic Creative Writing, Book Trade, Craft, Creativity, Historical Fiction, Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt, Research, THE DREAM FACTORY, THE EXPEDITION, THE FUEL TANK, THE IDENTITY CARD, THE TIME-AND-SPACE MACHINE, You and your writing | Permalink | Comments (12) | TrackBack (0)