Books and reading

Showing and Telling: cooperation not competition

First, can we get get a few things straight? Writing is not an exact science. It's not even an exact art. So it's next-to-impossible to say, "Doing X is Telling, doing Y is Showing", because "Telling" and "Showing" are convenient but wildly over-simple labels for effects on the reader which are achieved by a complex of means. Sorry. I prefer to call Telling "Informing" and sometimes "Explaining", and Showing "Evoking". Those are also over-simple, of course, but still, I think they help. Any text worth reading has writing which Tells, as well as writing which Shows. So you can ignore... Read more →


How-To-Write books: Addicted to them? Revolted by them?

A while ago, my writer friend Annie Caulfield and I recorded a podcast for the Royal Literary Fund's new series, Writers Aloud. I was just beginning to try my hand at writing radio plays, and Annie, whose fantastic Writing for Radio I knew before Annie and I met as fellow RLF Fellows at Goldsmiths, was trying her hand at writing novels. We had a lot of fun making the recording (hats off to the producer, Kona McPhee, for disentangling it into something coherent!), and now the RLF has turned what we talked about into three 30 minute podcasts. The first... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 4: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

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. CARELESS PEOPLE: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell Just as the young, rich(ish) Mid-Western writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were packing for the East in 1922, a very ordinary, young married woman and her lover were discovered in New Jersey, shot through the head. The murder case became a national sensation, and Fitzgerald followed it as he and Zelda settled... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 2: The Anatomy of Ghosts by Andrew Taylor

The second in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. 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. THE ANATOMY OF GHOSTS by Andrew Taylor It's the late eighteenth century, and bookseller John Holdsworth has fallen on sad, hard times, with bankrupcty, the death of his child and the suicide of his wife, both by drowning. To help the crazed son of a possible patron... Read more →


Do what you like, and teach your reader to like it too

Of all the narrative forms, theatre is one of the most demanding, both structurally and in terms of how little leeway you have to make mistakes. And musicals add in another layer of complexity, so I pounced on How Musicals Work by writer and director Julian Woolford, not least because I'm fascinated by where and how you'd put the songs in. The book discusses that at length, and all sorts of other ideas about structure and character (there's an overlap with John Yorke's Into the Woods, which I also love) which map across onto fiction and creative non-fiction. But one... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 1: The Devil in the Marshalsea by Antonia Hodgson

Happy New Year! To celebrate, this is the first of a new series on This Itch of Writing: not exactly reviews, but mini-posts about a book I'm reading which I think would be useful and interesting to us as writers. I'm planning to interleave these with the normal Itchy fare. 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. Not every book I write about will be one I think is perfect, but I shall be focusing... 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 →


Picked up a bad book? Think of it as a good one.

It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start. On the other hand, a lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you... Read more →


"A Cold Vehicle for the Marvellous": writing a story for J Sheridan Le Fanu

One of the things which has made my summer busy and fun has been writing a story for a new collection, Dreams of Shadow and Smoke: stories for J. S. Le Fanu, which is published this Thursday. Though he's now mostly known as the author of Uncle Silas, the influence of J Sheridan Le Fanu on the ghost and horror tradition in literature is vast, not least in his homeland: his vampires pre-date those of that other Irish writer, Bram Stoker, and his novel The House by the Churchyard was an important influence on Joyce's Finnegan's Wake. As V S... Read more →


Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one? Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't... Read more →


Straight proof: what any of us can learn from Dick Francis

Beat this, as the opening for a thriller: I inherited my brother's life. Inherited his desk, his business, his gadgets, his enemies, his horses and his mistress. I inherited my brother's life, and it nearly killed me. I've given micro-attention to a short piece of prose before, in An Education in Writing. And I've talked before, in Running With Wolf Hall, about what's going on when you read a whole book that sets you alight. And then the other day I wanted to have a think about how to build thrillers, and for the first time in many years I... Read more →


Going away to write? Make the most of it

Whether you want to snatch a couple of nights somewhere like Retreats For You, or you're planning to buy your own personal desert island, or you're wondering whether to offer cat-sitting to friends, most of us dream of running away from the clutter of everyday life, to write. And it can be wonderful. But unless you have infinite income and zero emotional ties, you're likely to feel you need to "justify" the time and money, by coming home having done lots of writing. And that's a very real pressure which can hamstring you quite as much as the half-term bedlam... Read more →


Copy-typing, copying out and the cursive embodying of words.

I am now galloping over Mrs Dalloway, re-typing it entirely from the start, a good method, I believe, as thus one works with a wet brush over the whole, and joins parts separately composed and gone dry. That's Virginia Woolf, in her diary, and I should imagine not a few readers of this post are thinking, "Imagine re-typing a whole manuscript! Such drudgery! Thank goodness the technology's moved on since then!" But Woolf obviously thought it was worth it - and several other authors did too. "She would re-type the whole, cutting as she went," says Jane Aiken Hodge's biography... Read more →


Chapter breaks and other joints

A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right... Read more →


So what counts as historical fiction?

If you're reading this in March 2017, and you're in reach of London on Monday March 27th, do come along to our WordsAway Salon, at the Tea House Theatre Vauxhall, where historical novelist Essie Fox, Kellie Jackson and I will be talking all things Historical Fiction. Starts at 7.45, but the venue's open all day, and there's wine, beer, tea and very splended cake on sale! More details here: http://www.wordsaway.info/salons/2016/11/12/writing-historical-fiction-with-essie-fox ------------------------------------------------------------ It's a hardy perennial: what makes a book-length act of storytelling about the past count as historical fiction? You'd be surprised at how many different answers there are. Whether... Read more →


Don't plot, just play Fortunately-Unfortunately

I've been plotting a novel recently, and one of the things I've done to help myself see if my story really was embodied in my plot (click here for the difference between plot and story), was to write a long, blueprint-like synopsis. And about three-quarters of the sentences in it were two-parters, hinging on a "but". Whatever action or situation was set up in the first half of the sentence was confounded, confused, contradicted or compromised by what was in the second half. What's more, if you look at the blurb on just about any novel or life-writing, it's doing... Read more →


Past and Present tense: which, why, when and how

It's a simple, but huge, decision you have to make about your novel or creative non-fiction, right at the beginning: will your main narrative tense be past tense, or present tense? And what, if anything, will you use the other one for? It is always possible to change your mind later, but doing so is somewhere between a flaming nuisance and a nightmare, so it's well worth thinking hard about the pros and cons of both. Ages ago I blogged my first thoughts about past vs. present tense, and I haven't changed very much of my mind, but that was... Read more →


Giving a Reading Part One - Getting Ready

Most writers are introverts, and for some the prospect of standing on a platform and reading their work aloud is terrifying. But at some point in your writing life you will find yourself having to read your work to an audience consisting of more than your sister and the dog. It might be an open mic in the local pub, a bookshop event, a platform at a literary festival, an X-Factor competition before agents at a writer's festival, or the launch of something like Stories for Homes (in aid of Shelter, and it's a cracker. Do buy it). Some authors... Read more →


Wives of Tyrants and landing the plane on time: the Harrogate History Festival 2013

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,... Read more →


Would love to do a writing course but "don't know any grammar"?

A couple of weeks ago, a writer emailed to say that he was interested in joining the course that Debi Alper and I teach, on Self-Editing Your Novel. He thought it might be what he needed, but was worried that he knows nothing about the technical side of writing, wouldn't be any use at the workshopping aspects of the course, and would look and feel a fool in consequence. He's not the first writer, by any means, to admit in a private email what he or she can't bring themselves to display in even the mildly public space of a... Read more →