Academic Creative Writing

Notes Made While Reading: books for writers

First things first. If you're busy with a shitty first draft, you will probably not want to get stuck into any of these just now - though some of them are just the right size for a stocking. Hurling a story down any old way that comes, "building up, not tearing down" as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, is usually not helped by an attack of standing-outside-it-ness, of self-consciousness, or a cool new costume for your Inner Critic. But for the rest of us (and NaNo-ers in due course) these are all books that I've read recently which have been... Read more →


"Cut All the Adjectives & Adverbs". Why it's Nonsense, and When it Isn't

Cut all the adjectives & adverbs" is right up there with "Show, don't Tell", as one of the first "rules" that new writers get told, and for similar reasons. And although it's perhaps responsible for more bland, threadbare writing than almost any other phenomenon except the ghost of Hemingway, it's not entirely nonsense either, any more than Hemingway is. The truth is, writing would be impossible if we couldn't use adjectives, adverbs and adverbial and adjectival phrases. But although you'll never get me to say that you "should" cut them, there is a whiff of good writerly sense somewhere at... Read more →


How To Handle Feedback On Your Writing

I've blogged more than once about how to give feedback, but most writers get feedback even more than they give it, since as well as workshop friends, you'll get it from teachers, agents, editors, reviewers, friends and family. Here, I'm going to refer to them all as "the reader", because that's what we hope a feeder-back will be: a representative of the readers we're hoping for. Obviously the setup varies. Some settings are "live": a Skype session with a mentor, round a workshop table, at a one-to-one book doctor session, in virtual workshop on your online course. Some are written... Read more →


Events Round-up: Salons, (Not) Darwin & More

The fact that I'm online in a hotel bar perched above a staggeringly beautiful gorge in North Mexico is not something I'm typing just to make you jealous. I've squeezed in a few days away (photography, poetry, walking, trains ... my usual stuff) while I'm really here for work. But it's made me realise that it's been a while since I posted about what I'm up to in the next few months, so here goes. I don't know how many readers of This Itch of Writing live in or around Mexico City - although it never ceases to astonish me... Read more →


Mastering the tyranno-thesaurus

Among teachers of English at school-level, using a thesaurus is a Good Thing, being a means of enlarging children's vocabulary. But a ticked box for the maximum number of different words on the page is a poor substitute for teaching genuinely good writing, so among serious writers, and teachers of writing, using a thesaurus is often spoken of as a Very Bad Thing. And when you consider the thesaursed version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", which floats round the internet attributed to John Raymond Carson, you can see why: Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific.... Read more →


They say my dialogue is weak. What do I do?

Fiction writers often talk as if we have to write in two completely different modes: dialogue, and everything else. There is a basic difference: while narration is, clearly, the writer's choice of words to convey a story, dialogue is trying to evoke how people who are not the writer actually speak. But if you've ever listened to recordings of real conversation - all ums and ers and going round in circles - you'll know that even the most naturalistic written dialogue is in fact very different. And by no means all fiction-writers and playwrights - who deal chiefly in dialogue... Read more →


Should I do a Creative Writing MA?

I've blogged about whether, and when, a course in Creative Writing might be a good idea, and about how to choose the right one for you. And if you're wondering whether, and how, Creative Writing can be taught, this unpicks that hardy perennial of a question. But a quick search on the UCAS website shows 459 Masters-level courses in Creative Writing. True, part-time and full-time versions of the same course are being listed separately, but the darned things cost a fortune these days (though student loans are these days available for both part- and full-time study). So, assuming you're thinking... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the Historical Novel Society Conference 2016

... and some that I didn't but which might be useful. And apologies for the blog being silent, lately - normally August is a quiet month for work, with plenty of blogging time, but this one's been very busy, not least because of HNS16, but also because we've been planning a new series of evening events for writers in London: the Words Away Salons. Normal(ish) service should resume at some point between the York Festival of Writing, next weekend, and my workshop at the Harrogate History Festival towards the end of October. HNSOxford16, in Oxford for the first time, was... Read more →


Surviving a PhD (or MPhil) Viva: how to finish your degree in style

The Creative Writing PhD is now firmly rooted in the Arts and Humanities forest, even if it is a relative sapling, and if you're nontheless wondering what on earth someone doing a doctorate in writing is, well, doing, this post of mine should make that clear. If you don't feel that the full length of a PhD is necessarily for you, then there's the very wonderful MPhil at the University of South Wales, which is very different from most MAs. And whatever you're studying, you might find that my post about Academic Writing is useful. But whether you're an MPhil... Read more →


Guest Post by Jenn Ashworth: Making the Rules: Physics and Fell

One of the questions I suggest asking your novel is "Who is telling this story?" And the next is, "Where are they standing, relative to the events they're telling?". So I was excited to discover that Jenn Ashworth was building her new novel, Fell, on one of the most interesting - and fruitful - answers to that question that I've yet come across. I was lucky enough, a while back, to have a tiny role in her working-out of the considerable writerly challenges it posed, and when I read the book a few weeks ago I just loved it (its... Read more →


Filtering: HD for your writing

"Filtering", as a technical issue in writing, probably wins the prize for Most Useful Concept With Most Unhelpful Name (although, for that prize, "Free Indirect Style" is a very close runner-up). But John Gardner called it that in one of Creative Writing's founding texts, The Art of Fiction, and Janet Burroway sets Filtering all out very clearly in her classic Writing Fiction, so we're stuck with the label. The basic idea is that writers very often use phrases which get between the reader and a straightforward representation and evocation of what's happening. Gardner describes it as: ... the needless filtering... Read more →


The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language. As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say,... Read more →


Giving feedback: how to do it, how to make it really useful

I blogged a few years back about how to process feedback, but the funny thing is that many writers find giving feedback more difficult than receiving it. Often, they're some of the nicest people: they're worried about hurting their fellow thin-skinned writers' feelings and know that hurting their confidence can be be genuinely damaging. Sometimes they're some of the most self-centred people: they can't be bothered to put in the mental work to understand what another writer is trying to do, and can only "correct" in terms of how they'd do it themselves. I've also given general tips about how... Read more →


Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam

When Debi Alper or I are trying to explain Psychic Distance (which we very often are, since it can make such a spectacular difference to someone's writing), we often use the analogy of a film camera. We start with John Gardner's examples, which take the same moment in a story and re-tell it at five separate points on the psychic distance spectrum, and unpack them thus: 1) It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. is like a long-shot: we can't discern much about the man. If we were even further away, depending... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... Read more →


Zombie nouns and aggressive passives: kill that "office-speak"

One of the most common things I find myself writing in the margins of students' creative writing is "this is very Office-Speak-y". I am, of course, maligning the many millions (OK, half a dozen) companies whose internal communications are full - as Bertie Wooster would say - of pep and zest. But, even if your office is a cowshed or a diving-bell, internal office speak has a way of leaking out onto the pages of everyday life. And that tends to mean it leaks into your storytelling. (If you also want to tackle similar things in your academic or business... Read more →


Does worrying about technique and "the rules" restrict a writer's creativity?

I've blogged before about why what are called "rules" about writing are really tools, and why all the things you're told you "shouldn't" do in writing are sometimes exactly what you should do. I've exploded (comparatively speaking) with fury about why the "cut everything with was in it" idea is actively damaging as well as wrong-headed, and I've talked about how much it helps to approach different drafts in a different spirit. But the question at the top of this post is a perfectly fair question - and one which a blog-reader asked me the other day: It is these... Read more →


Why the Creative Writing A Level shouldn't be axed

Only a few years after it was introduced, the Creative Writing A Level looks likely to be abolished, and I think that's a big mistake, as well as a great shame. I should say that I've no particular axe to grind, as I don't teach A Level and don't plan to start. But I do have an MPhil, and a PhD in Creative Writing myself, I've taught it at the Undergraduate level for the Open University, and my first book about Creative Writing - Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction - will be published by John Murray Educational in March... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2015

As ever, in among a mini-course, two workshops, a dozen one-to-one meetings and several dozen informal conversations, sober and otherwise, that made up my weekend at York, I mentioned a fair few blog posts that might be useful to someone. If you want to get a flavour of this year's festival, veterans Debi Alper and Andrew Wille have posted about it, aspiring writer Jo Hogan has written very sapiently about what she learnt from her second festival, and this is a round-up of my impressions from past years. But, really, York is all about writing better. So here are a... Read more →


Guest Post: In Praise of Sentences, by Barbara Baig

You probably know how cross I get when I hear of writers being told that they should stick to short sentences. I suspect it's sheer cowardice on the part of writers and teachers who haven't bothered to learn to control a long sentence, but it's also terribly stupid, because it deprives your writing of the energy and variety that you need if you're going to tell your story as effectively as possible: any writer worth their salt needs to be able to handle any kind of sentence. And it's doubly-terribly-stupid if you're ever trying to evoke other voices in narrative... Read more →