Craft

10 Reasons for a Prose Writer to do a Poetry Course

Every now and again someone asks me not, "How can I write this story better?" - to which I have a whole Tool-kit-full answers, obviously - but "How can I become a better writer?" Assuming that my interlocutor is already meeting the absolute pre-condition of being a better writer, which is reading more, and more widely, my next suggestion is probably to take a poetry course. That's not because I think everyone should write lyrically - although that is a very honourable goal - but because I think it can help any writer to develop. As Ray Bradbury puts it... 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 →


Basing Your Fiction on Real People? Can "Real" and "Fiction" live in the same book?

At October's Words Away Salon next Monday, the 16th, Kellie and I are delighted to be hosting Jill Dawson. We'll be talking about writing fiction based on real characters - recent or ancient. Jill is a poet and novelist, and a highly-regarded mentor of writers, and her most recent novel is The Crime Writer. That's about Patricia Highsmith, but she's also written The Great Lover, about Rupert Brooke, and Fred and Edie, based on a famous 1920s murder. So we thought she'd be the perfect person to start us off talking about this fascinating but very challenging kind of fiction,... 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 →


Mentoring for Writers: the Authors for Grenfell post

At the Authors for Grenfell auction, I offered to write a bespoke blog post for the bidder of the largest amount. The auction has closed now, having raised over £180,000, but the Red Cross's London Fire Appeal is very much open, and the needs of the victims don't vanish as the headlines do, so do please click through to donate. And for a lovely story of the power of social media in these things, click here. My idea, in offering the blog post, was that the bidder would get from some personalised advice. But the winning bidder turned out to... 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 →


Lady Macbeth and rubber duckies; how much do you need to explain?

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new film Lady Macbeth. The performances are marvellous, the direction remarkable - especially for a first feature - and costumes and settings are beautiful in a terrifyingly austere way. But I also noticed an aspect of the script which is extremely relevant to writing fiction and creative non-fiction, or anything else story-shaped. In neither script nor image does Lady Macbeth give you almost any backstory or side-story (my term, but you know what I mean), for any character or situation. We learn almost nothing beyond the edges of what we... Read more →


What is a non-linear narrative, and should my story be one?

Once upon a time, there were only stories which were about a single person, and they started at the beginning, proceeded by way of a middle stretch of causally linked events, through to the end. Then someone invented the word "meanwhile", and it became possible to tell a story in which that chain of events was partly formed or changed by what was happening or had happened to someone else and in a different place; the story began to step sideways, so as to draw this new set of causal relationships into the main chain of cause-and-effect. As readers and... Read more →


How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a... Read more →


"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader": True or false? Plus choirboy syndrome

So, the poet Robert Frost said, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". This, I think, we usually take as being about writers having to be willing to feel what they want their readers to feel. Indeed, although Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, famously describes poetry's origin as "emotion recollected in tranquillity", he goes on to say the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the... Read more →


When a good stopping place is a bad starting place

Today is supposed to be a writing day, and the morning is my prime writing time. The project is going well, I've got Scrivener fired up, and I've run my eye down yesterday's work to remind myself where I've got to. And yet ... I've just spent the last hour not-getting-on-with-it: faffing about with useful-but-not-urgent work and domestic things, consoling a Facebook friend who's struggling with the outcome of a nasty book contract clause, doing a bit of necessary professional tweeting, and making cups of tea that I then forget about. This is nothing to do with serious procrastination: I'm... Read more →


The Ten Things Which Most Often Go Wrong With Beginners' Fiction

Happy New Year! My post from this time last year collected Ten New Years Ideas For Everyone Who Writes, Or Wants To Write, and I though that an equivalent for the actual nuts and bolts of writing might be useful. Of course, every writer has their own specific strengths and weaknesses, and on a bad day the strengths feel awfully feeble, and the weaknesses depressingly strong. Indeed, it can be instructive, even encouraging, to make a list of what you think you're relatively good at and what you think you're relatively bad at, especially if you refuse to think "bad... Read more →


Is using semi-colons pretentious?

To add a little spice to the season of goodwill, may I propose that anyone who shouts at you that it's pretentious to use semi-colons in fictional prose is, themselves, being pretentious? As I was saying in Picked up a Bad Book? Think about it at as a Good One, if you want to widen as well as improve your craft it's good practice to assume that professional writers have good reasons for doing what appears to you to be a bad thing - and then ask yourself what that good reason might be. As my favourite handy punctuation site... 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 →


My story is far too long. What do I do?

A writer recently howled on a forum that his novel was far too long: it was 180,000 words when people were saying that no agent will look at a book over 90,000. He did sense that there were things to cut, but didn't know where to begin. And how on earth was he to get it down to half the length - lose every other word, effectively - and still have a novel, not a blood-sodden mess? There are an awful lot of writers who have faced up to this problem, but actually it's two relatively separate problems: what length... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at London Writers Café on Showing & Telling

The London Writers' Café is a longstanding group of fiction writers which holds all sorts of workshops, one-day retreats and critique events, and last Saturday I was asked to give a two-hour workshop on Showing & Telling. As ever, I mentioned several blog-posts, and I promised to round up the links and post them here, and a few others. I've missed one, or there's some other topic that you'd find useful, do say in the comments, and if I've got a post about it I'll dig it up. Andrew Stanton's TED talk on storytelling WordsAway evening Salons for Writers, at... Read more →


Life Writing? Travel Writing? Creative Non-Fiction? What are you writing?

At this year's York Festival of Writing I gave a workshop on literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of the topics that came up was: "What is creative non-fiction?" Which is a very good question and (like all the best questions) not quick to answer. Creative non-fiction - which also gets called "Narrative non-fiction" and "Literary non-fiction" - lives in a fascinating liminal area, bounded by fiction and poetry on one side, by journalism on another, and by "proper" history, biography, autobiography, travel-, food-, science- and art-writing on the third. So creative non-fiction is narrative: it is an act... Read more →


Make Your Novel Shine: all the posts I mentioned at the Words Away Salon

It was fantastic to see so many people at the inaugural Words Away Salon, "Make Your Novel Shine" at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall. Many thanks from Words Away's founder, Kellie Jackson, and me to everyone who came, and thanks too to the Tea House Theatre for being their excellent selves. It was a great evening: not just cake, wine, tea, and everyone making new writer friends, but a brilliantly insightful discussion with Andrew Wille, editor, writer and book-doctor: thanks most of all to him for his excellent ideas and inspiration. Andrew and I were talking specifically about how,... 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 →