Academic Creative Writing

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 →


My best tip of all, whatever you write

A couple of days ago, on Twitter, @joseordonezUT asked if I had any tips for a new writer. As you may have noticed, I don't really do tips on here, partly because as soon as I think of a tip, I think of a reason why it's not always true, and before I know where I am two more paragraphs and a set of bullet points have unrolled themselves out of my fingers. But of course, as soon as I thought "I don't do tips", I remembered a good one. Write your first draft for yourself, your second draft for... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "How much should I reveal of my antagonist's intentions?"

Q: Dear Ms Cowless - I am struggling to make what should be a simple decision, and I'm stuck because I can't make it. Basically, I have my Antagonist sitting down having a catch-up meet with his top guy to discuss the direction of their plans. The Antagonist is using the skills and abilities of his top man to exact his revenge. The reader will be carried through the story and will see the good guys caught on the back foot, i.e. they obviously have no idea about the impending act, but the reader will if I choose to have... Read more →


Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... Read more →


Psychic Distance: how terrific writers actually use it

You won't read This Itch of Writing for long without coming across my conviction that Psychic Distance - a.k.a. Narrative Distance - is the most useful way there is of working with point-of-view, voice, the insides of character's heads, the reader's feeling for those characters, the relationship of characters and narrative ... about 75% of your job in writing a novel or life writing piece, in other words. Pyschic Distance week on the current Self-Editing Course has, as ever, lit a galaxy of lightbulbs in the participants, but I've realised we could do with some more examples of how it... Read more →


"Everything About My Writing Is Awful And No, I'm Not OK."

I'm talking about those times when writing seems impossible but so does everything else: when your heart - your life itself - is stapled to the page and no one wants it. And that heart, the life itself, is a miserable, clichéd, shrivelled thing, and you a deluded, talentless fool for ever dreaming that you might have something worth saying which people would want to hear. Just as the Guardian's Work-Agony Uncle Jeremy Bullmore inspired me to track down Jerusha Cowless and recruit her to This Itch of Writing, this brilliant post about that feeling in your life as a... Read more →


"Who's Telling the Story?" All the posts I mentioned at City University CW MA

Yesterday evening I spent a couple of hours working with the students of City University's collected Creative Writing MA courses. It's a two-year MA, structured round writing a complete project - novel, non-fiction or script, and my talk was called "Who's Telling the Story? Voice, viewpoint and narrative in fiction and creative non-fiction", and in the course of it, several blog posts were mentioned: I promised I'd post the links when I got a moment. So, here they are, and if anyone who was there can remember one I've forgotten, then do mention it in the comments, and I'll dig... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 5: Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy by John le Carré

Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. TINKER TAILOR SOLDIER SPY, by John le Carré 1969, or thereabouts: a damaged man arrives at a run-down West Country prep school, and a minor Secret Service thug, posted as a defector to Soviet Russia, turns up in Ascot with a nightmare of a story about the Secret Service. The only people who are - probably - sufficiently outside the new regime of London Circus to be trusted... Read more →


Where's the real story? Not where you expected?

I hope I'm a kind and supportive teacher, I certainly don't tolerate seminar bullies, and I can honestly say that the only time I've been aware of tears in a workshop I was running was nothing to do with anyone's hurt feelings, and everything to do with writing fiction. Since the business of fiction is largely about imaginatively inhabiting consciousnesses and experiences which are not one's own, I had set the group an exercise of writing a scene from the point of view and voice of their main character, though not necessarily an event from the story. First I got... Read more →


Understanding point-of-view: circles of consciousness

Point of view is one of the most important tools in your toolkit, and the basic concept isn't so hard to get your brain round (click here if you want a quick revision course). But in "No, it's nothing," said Sally airily, and John wondered if she were lying. He stared out of the window, and Sally closed the kitchen drawer with a snap. She poured herself more coffee and sat down, offering up a little prayer that John wouldn't ask why the bank was writing to her separately. is Sally closed the kitchen drawer with a snap in John's... Read more →


Looking for help with your writing? Welcome to the Itch of Writing Studio

Emma Darwin is a rare thing - a gifted writer and a talented, intuitive teacher who is able to dig into technical subtleties and the horrifying mess of the first draft with wit, confidence and respect. - Jenn Ashworth If you've been visiting This Itch of Writing: The Blog for a while, you'll know that as well as writing fiction and non-fiction, blogging, teaching and generally living and breathing writing, I also work individually with other writers. Do click through to find out more: This Itch of Writing: the Studio I love adapting to the needs and aspirations of individual... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Everyone says my writing's competent, but I'm not getting anywhere"

There have been two exciting developments: first, I have a new website specifically for my work helping other writers, so if you're interested in my mentoring, teaching, events or appraisals, do click through to This Itch of Writing: The Studio, and have a browse. And then, just as I was recovering from the worst of the website-wrangling, I heard from This Itch of Writing's agony aunt, Jerusha Cowless. She's been busy un-contacting un-contacted peoples in the Upper Amazon, but at last I got a message through, enclosing a plea for help from an aspiring writer, and Jerusha sent her reply... Read more →


Ten Ways to Move Point-of-View (and don't let the self-appointed experts tell you otherwise)

If you've been hanging around the Itch for any length of time, you'll know that I think the creeping Creative Writing orthodoxy that you can't change point of view except between chapters is nonsense. (Click here for my full series of posts on PoV if you're not so sure what we're on about when we talk about point of view.) It's a "rule" which has only been invented in the last twenty years or so, peddled by would-be writers who don't know good writing when they see it, and, I suspect, writing teachers who don't know how to teach it:... Read more →


First book heading for the bin? Congratulations!

A lot of writerly talk circulates round whether you're a planner or a pantser, or some combination of the two. I've explored the idea that planning needn't be the business of drawing up a map and intinerary which you will then follow: maybe it's more a voyage into the unknown, to a place which by definition you can't have a map for, for which you need other kinds of preparation. And I've thought about what I call "retrospective planning": using what are usually discussed as pre-first-draft tools later, to sort out that first or tenth draft after you've written it.... Read more →


Historical Fiction Autumn: Hodgson, Harrogate and How Not to Start your Historical Novel

It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction. Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and... Read more →


What is passive voice, and why are you told to avoid it?

There seems to be confusion between the actual grammar of active and passive voice, and prose that's accused of being "passive". So, let's start with the bare facts. When the action - the verb - of a sentence is being performed by the subject of the sentence, the sentence is in active voice. This kind of subject + verb + object construction is the basic building block of English. Anne chases the cat. The dog bit Ben. Here, the action is being done by the subject of the sentence: "Anne chases" and "The dog bit". When the action is being... Read more →


Historical Novel? Biography? When is your life writing actually historical fiction?

I'm delighted to have been commissioned by Hodder to write Getting Started in Historical Fiction, for John Murray Learning's classic Teach Yourself list. It will be published towards the end of 2015, and starting it prompted my post So What Counts as Historical Fiction?. But there's another question I'll need to explore. Fiction is often a way of exploring real worlds and lives, but what makes a narrative about a real historical character a novel, and not a biography? A biography or autobiography is a whole life narrated with the techniques and boundaries of the historian: provable facts assembled; the... Read more →