Books and reading

Free Indirect Style: what it is and how to use it

Free Indirect Discourse is the original term, being a direct translation from the French discours indirect libre, but that doesn't get you much further. And least helpful of all is Free Indirect Speech, because most of the time we don't use the term for stuff which was said aloud. (Does it make more sense in French, given that they don't routinely use speech marks in fiction? A question for another day.) But we're stuck with the name, and it's not really as vague and alarming as it suggests: quite likely you've been doing it all along - you just didn't... Read more →

Dreaming the first Queen Elizabeth

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... Read more →

Elizabeth Woodville, that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair

I've lived with Elizabeth Woodville - Lady Grey, Queen Elizabeth - on and off for more than fifteen years. In many people's introduction to one of the great mystery stories of English history, The Daughter of Time, Josephine Tey describes her perfectly as "that indestructible beauty with the silver-gilt hair"; she was the mother of the Princes in the Tower, the wife of Edward IV, and she's also one of the narrators of my novel A Secret Alchemy. I always knew that I wasn't the first, any more than Tey was, but I wrote about where my Elysabeth came from... Read more →

"Who is that judge that sits perpetually in your head?"

A writing friend picked up something I posted in a forum years ago, and has it on the wall above her desk. It's from a letter which journalist and scriptwriter Robert Presnell wrote to the great war correspondent Martha Gellhorn. Gellhorn was one of those writers who is driven to write as a way of making sense of the world, but is never satisfied by what she has written for more than a few moments. The result is to make writing excruciatingly difficult and slow. I'm not, of course, saying that tackling a major project, whether it's flash fiction or... Read more →

What I learnt, as a writer, about writing, from A S Byatt's Possession

A while ago I blogged about what's going on, intuitively, when you're reading a really good book, using Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall as an example. But, of course, many of us do read a really good book for a conscious, specific purpose. And if you have to write at length about it then you have to read even more clear-headedly. The first time I did that was for my MPhil dissertation, and the book was A S Byatt's Possession. I was writing a novel which wasn't, then, called The Mathematics of Love, and there were things I wanted to say... Read more →

Is your sex and violence boundary-breaking, brave, or just plain lazy?

One of the things you learn to take in your stride, when you're teaching creative writing, is sex and violence, on the page, at least. And then there's other "strong material": racism or misogyny in action or language which would be distasteful to some or many readers. I'm sure anyone reading this blog would agree that for writing as a creative discipline the default should be No Limits - and yet we do all have limits. And very, very occasionally the piece is genuinely ethically dubious, and hopefully the institution you're working for will have a policy that you're not... Read more →

Voice and tone: Figaro, Feydeau or the Moor of Venice?

In the Self-Editing Your Novel course that I co-teach with Debi Alper, Week Three is about Voice, and an old friend of a question came up: "How do I find my voice?". I've blogged about Voice before, and explored how it's the combination of "What you want to say", and "How you want to say it". So at the micro or midi-level, finding the voice for a piece of fiction is about two things: 1) Fully imagining your characters-in-action and their predicament: their actions, their emotions, their experience of the world that they act within, and their take on that... Read more →

What does your character say about him/herself?

When Jessica Chastaine is working on a part, she says, she makes two lists: "One: everything my character says about herself, and Two: everything everyone else says about her." It's a good technique, and I'm sure she's not unique in using it: it sounds like a classic Drama School exercise. And, as so often, listening to how actors work is illuminating for writers. If our first draft is like the kind of improvising that goes on when actors and a playwright are devising a piece, and our obsession with finding the right verb is almost indistiguishable from Stanislavski's, then Chastaine's... Read more →

Composting, dreaming and other hard work

I'm contemplating going back to an earlier project. Not, heaven forbid, re-working the text, but writing a new text built on the same ideas and situations. And one of the advantages of doing things this way is that the researched material has mulched down nicely in the back of my head, in the sense I was discussing here. The stuff you found out needs to become stuff you just know, so that there's no longer any difference between them: all compost. But is there anything you do to hurry the process of mulching down? Are there compost accelerators? I think... Read more →

6 questions to ask your descriptions

In How Would You Describe It? I was talking about this thing called Description, which seems to get so many beginner-writers worried, and how you can get better at it. But I don't myself have a mental category of writing called Description at all; I just think in terms of Dialogue, and Everything Else - or, more grown-uply, Narration. That's not because evoking places and things isn't important. The places and spaces we live in, and the things we live with, are profoundly important - but notice that they're important because we live in and with them: it's how we... 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 →

From candyfloss to flesh-eating monsters

A friend - let's call her Peta - who writes successfully at the lighter end of women's fiction, including short stories for the womags, has just had one of the more baffling rejections: that her characters lack emotional depth. Her natural writing voice is light and lively, as she is herself, and she doesn't write or read heavily-charged emotional novels. But, as she says The irony is, I am a very emotional, sensitive person in real life! But yes, I do have a very jokey, lightweight side which is what most people who meet me see, and which comes across... Read more →

Running with Wolf Hall

When Wolf Hall was published, I was up to my neck (and frequently out of my depth) in writing a novel. I love Hilary Mantel's writing, but I didn't dare go near it. A novel about high politics and low violence set only fifty years after A Secret Alchemy, and built round real historical characters? Might it just make me throw in the towel forever? Well, yes: the book is astonishingly, magnificently good, in everything from the big ideas to the small words. When I put it down yesterday I was about half-way through, and it took two hours and... 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 →

All the blog posts I mentioned at York 2012, and a big Thank You

I'm just back from the Festival of Writing at York, and if you don't know what I'm talking about, my post from the same point last year is here, and from 2010 is here. Apart from the usual frustration at having been too busy running my own workshops and doing 1-to-1 book doctoring to sit in on any workshops for myself, it was as much frantic, rewarding, alcohol-and-caffeine-fuelled fun as ever. The ducks were a bit quieter - maybe because it's September, not March - but other than that I'm going to need just as long to recover this time.... Read more →

An education in writing

One of my favourite authors of all is Elizabeth Bowen. And the other day I went back to my favourite of her novels, The Heat of the Day, which I can't recommend highly enough. Her characters and settings are so memorable that in between times I forget how much of a modernist she was: the writing has the kind of density which is born of a precise attention to physicality but also to thought and sensation, and it can be quite elliptical. It's like looking at a photograph so full of texture and form that your eye feels it powerfully,... Read more →

London Road Calling

Last week I went to see London Road at the National Theatre. It's a verbatim play: its script contains nothing but things real people actually said over two years from the first of the Ipswich Murders, to the conviction of the murderer. And as we discussed it, I remembered the part of the Writing for Radio course I've just done, where we explored the use you could make of pre-existing spoken-word material - news broadcasts, for example, or other kinds of sound clip, right back to the days when you tuned your wireless from the Local or the National, and... Read more →

Sex in the news, and other historical moments

A bit of a round-up post today. Fancy going to bed with a good e-book? You may remember that a couple of years ago I had a story in an anthology of erotic short stories, In Bed With... along with writers like Fay Weldon, Ali Smith and Stella Duffy. The conceit of the collection is that we're all writing under pseudonyms, and in Writing Sex and Ringing Tills I blogged about why so many writers find writing sex difficult, and why some of us therefore find it extra-interesting. Today's news is that it's just come out as an e-book. That... 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 →