Art

David Mamet's ideas on acting make sense for writers too

I've blogged before about how useful it can be for prose and fiction writers to think in terms of theatre and drama, and again at The History Girls about why my own Drama degree has been so useful to me. So when I came across this post, on actor James Devereaux's Great Acting Blog, I couldn't help hearing it as a way of thinking about writing. James has collected some of playwright and director's David Mamet's most thought-provoking and important ideas, and I hope he won't mind if I borrow them. Learn to ask: what does the character in the... Read more →


Historical Fiction: History You Can Live Inside

On several mornings recently I've walked from London Bridge Station, past Southwark Cathedral and the Globe, along Bankside and across the river in sparkling sunlight to the very centre of the old City of London: St Paul's Cathedral. The street names, the roast pig in Borough Market, the spiders-web steel and plant-like trunks of the Millenium Bridge, the street names, the stones of St Paul's, all sing with history. So, to celebrate the launch of Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association, and my column in it, Dr Darwin's Writing Tips, I thought I'd post this, a version of... 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 →


Picking, stealing and dancing skeletons

Aspiring writers are sometimes paralysed by the fear that they'll be using other people's ideas, words, stories, characters. It might be the simple desire to behave ethically, and a fear of outright plagiarism or even of being sued for breach of copyright. Or it might be a more internal sense that your writing will be inauthentic, second-hand, second-rate, if it has whispers of someone else's work in among your lines. It's an understandable worry, not least because our Western tradition of art lays such stress on originality. And yes, outright plagiarism does matter ethically, as breach of copyright matters legally... Read more →


"Quantity gives experience, experience gives quality"

In Zen in the Art of Writing Ray Bradbury says this: An athlete may run ten thousand miles in order to prepare for one hundred yards. Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. What I really like about this is that it runs counter to the idea which is implicit - or explicit - in so many people's ideas about how creative work happens, perhaps because it's implicit in so much of the modern, capitalist West, at least: that the better and cleverer you are, the more quickly and efficiently you should be able to reach your goal.... Read more →


But can you teach Creative Writing?

I get asked this amazingly often, considering that no one ever asks if you can teach the doing of other arts, but, just as I took ages to get on to that other old chestnut, "What is literary fiction?" and my own personal Ancestral Elephant, it's taken me till now to sort out what I think clearly enough to answer the question. My answer, mind you, depends on how long I've got, but it comes from someone who wrote for fifteen years before being taught, (and my thoughts on the pros and cons of writing courses are here) but now... Read more →


Forgiveness, chocolate, and why enough is ... satisfactory

If you're a writer, then you're never really happy just to experience something in its moment: there's always a restlessness, a frustration-in-waiting, until you can get it out of your self and onto paper. And you know the phenomenon I was talking about in Opening the Doors, where you've been reading or listening to something and it seems to skin you - or tenderise you, as Alan Bennet's Queen has it? For a while you're extra-alive to the world round you: all six senses, words, images, things strangers say, ideas for stories, and bits of your own memory, and it's... Read more →


Less, more, and Apollo in his chariot

You don't need to have been reading the Itch for very long to know that when we're talking about prose, I'm usually going to talk about specificity - particularity of experience - precision. It's an aspect of Showing, as opposed to Telling, and a way of making even your Telling Showy. As I put it in that post, "Crudely, They met at the big tree isn't as Showy, because it isn't as particularised, as They kissed under the rotting willow, or They fought beneath the sapling oak". And so much of the power of the paragraph I was anatomising in... Read more →


Five minutes' fun

When I'm talking to aspiring writers, one of the things I often find myself saying is, "Don't underestimate what being published does to your relationship to your writing." Even if you haven't been so foolish as to give up the day job - even if the next book is, or isn't, under contract - even if the way your book launches is bangier, or whimperier, than you could possibly have imagined - going public changes things. It sets up all sorts of complicated stresses about being judged, and the expectations of others, and your expectations of yourself in our Western... Read more →


What time are you talking about?

I've been working flat-out on the WIP, and I can now see the end of the story, in the sense that I know pretty much how I'm going to get to the end which has always been there, though I still need to imagine-out-and-write my way through all the exact moves... So I didn't get out for my statutory walk till after ten last night, and halfway round it I had a qualm. The last few days' writing is quite brisk because there's lots happening; there's not much expansion of setting or atmosphere, nor much in the way of flashback,... Read more →


A novel is not the singular of data

Recently, I came upon a neat phrase to use on those people who refuse to hear the fact that there has been net emigration of central Europeans from Britain, because all the waiters in their local Pizza Express come from Warsaw: "Data is not the plural of anecdote." But it reminded me of how a writer friend wanted her ancient-Persian heroine to start up a cottage industry making dyestuffs in her kitchen. "But it wasn't done like that," said the friendly expert at the British Museum. "The evidence is that dye production was on an industrial scale, and they wouldn't... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers?"

Dear Jerusha: I had a one-to-one with an agent who said she felt my main character was rather dull and not pro-active enough. She was afraid that, not being like the usual feisty heroines who buck the system, my MC might fail to grab the reader's attention, and my writing friends have said similar things. I fully appreciate what they mean but I have struggled to correct the problem. The thing is, she is meant to be a bit 'wet' for want of a better word, or at least she is to begin with. She has to overcome this and... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm not a writer any more, I'm a failure."

Oh, Jerusha, I hardly dare write to you, because I'm not a proper writer, not any more. I don't belong on this blog, or the postgrad course I'm doing, or anywhere. Two years work on the novel, and it's a failure. I'm a failure. A friend has just bagged a two-book deal after an auction. My novel's been rejected everywhere it's gone out to. I can't start something new because all my mental and physical energy - my very breath - is on hold for this one. I know that my writing's good, and I've worked and polished and re-worked... Read more →


Post(card) from Devon

So I'm not really blogging, because I'm buried in Devon at the entirely wonderful Retreats for You. So here, instead, is a little taste of my walk this afternoon (after 2000 words, in front of log fire, before delicious supper NOT cooked by me). Read more →


The Inner Calvinist and the Petrol Pump

I've blogged about procrastination before in terms of the immediate moment, but what's causing it? Why do we fail to get on with the thing we love doing: writing? We've got a lot of our lives arranged around it, and our hopes and self esteem built on it, and if you earn your living as a writer that book you're trying to write underpins everything that pays the rest of the rent. So why is Write so often, actually, Not Write? At least commissioned work has disaster looming if you don't do it, and short work is visibly finite. But... Read more →


The red spot in the monograph

On a thread about Point of View, in the public bit of WriteWords, I posted a link to this admirable exploration by David Jauss of the whole business of point of view and psychic distance in fiction. Jauss starts by discussing Hemingway's story "Hills Like White Elephants", which is an exemplar of what some call the Dramatic point of view, and some call Third Person Objective. The story is largely built from dialogue, and the rest is plain narrative of physical action and setting: it's dramatic in the proper sense, in other words: it contains nothing that someone in the... Read more →


The Daemon and the Prig, by the man who saw the torturer's horse.

I've stumbled on something that Auden wrote to an aspiring teenage poet, John Cornford: The real problem though for you as for every other writer... is that of the Daemon and the Prig. Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one's guts from one's head. Just when the Daemon is going to speak the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it. The idea of the daemon and the prig is of course at the root of the ideas of Shitty First... Read more →


Off-the-peg

On the Online Self-Editing Course which I'm running jointly with Debi Alper, my tutorial was talking about characterisation, and I said that at the self-editing stage you need to ask yourself whether your characters are too off-the-peg. "Off-the-peg" is a term I owe to Susannah Rickards, originally for the kind of language which does the basic job perfectly well (and its "rightness" can seduce new writers into feeling it's really right) but is never really fresh. It sits somewhere between the fictioneers' "second-hand" and the poets' "received language", as a way of describing something which we've read or encountered many... Read more →


The desirable difficulty of sleeve and paint

Oh, how I do love a thoroughly counter-intuitive discovery! Apparently, the plainer and cleaner the typeface, the less a reader will learn and remember of the detail of the text. A typeface which slows the reader means they learn and understand more of what's being said. Not just the denotation, but the connotations, the friction between them, the prosody which affects the tone and 'feel' of the piece... they all have time to grow and flower, and create a full meaning, rather than only a basic meaning, in the reader's mind. This sounds to me like something fairly fundamental in... Read more →


The opposite is also true

A notably relaxed Christmas must be making my mind even flakier and easily knocked off-course than usual: when I turned on the radio and heard about crisis talks in Northern Ireland that awful, sick fear came over me as it does over anyone over a certain age: "Oh God! What now?" So when it turned out that the crisis was an acute water shortage, I started to laugh. Yes, it's clearly no joke at all for those suffering from it, but hey! not so long ago a headline like that would have heralded some new horror in what we once... Read more →