Creative Non-Fiction

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 →


The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language. As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say,... 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 →


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 →


Solving mis-takings in your story: if you can't beat 'em, join 'em

What do you do when the right word - phrase - action - scene - is something which the reader might take the wrong way? Anything from tripping up on a word, to hooting with laughter at a moment of high drama? The other day, writer Graeme Talboys posted this on Facebook: OK. I know this is very first-world anorak writery stuff, but in my latest work I have a psychic who is also illiterate. The problem is, I keep using the term 'read' to describe what she is doing and it is beginning to jar in my head. Is... Read more →


Narrative Drive: "What matters is that the ship is always trying to get somewhere"

You know how books about writing novels and stories always talk about "conflict"? And you eye your delicate love story or strange evocation of an agoraphobic fantasist, and wonder how you're supposed to get the Kalashnikovs or the divorce-court drama in there? I know why it gets said - I know why this issue matters, and matters hugely - but I've never found "conflict" as a term particularly helpful: so often the human dynamics which drive good stories just don't seem to file under that heading. "Obstacles" is perhaps a more useful term, when we're talking about plot and story,... Read more →


Write a lot for work? Or had a long break from fiction? How do you get your fiction voice back?

After you've gone three rounds with the Annual Report, it's frightening how often things like these somehow materialise in your novel: Ann was in a conflictual situation and chose the least-worst option. The command structure was put into a red alert state and the opening procedures were followed. Wheeling his idea out for the others to chew on, Bob took on board their thirst for closure and wrapped up the conference by casting caution to the winds. Flinging the briefcase over the wall before the ticking stopped, the solution was the last thing that Carrie knew. I've taught creative writing... 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 →


Writing Emotion: is less more, and how do you make it real?

Back when I posted about how showing and telling should co-operate, not compete, a commenter said this: I struggle with showing my main character's emotion, over-complicating things in my attempt to avoid signals and abstract nouns. I'd love to pull off a reserved first person narrator, one you feel for, while she's trying to hide her pain even from herself, but so far not succeeded. I know what she means. In theory we all know that Less is More (except when it isn't) but how can you be sure the reader doesn't just understand, but really feels what's going on... 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 →


Ring-fencing Writing Time

I don't make New Year's Resolution of the "Must do better, be slimmer, sweeter, nicer, harder working and learn to windsurf" sort. But a writer friend whose work I really admire, and so do lots of proper critics, said recently that at one stage of her apprenticeship, when she was insanely broke and insanely busy, she realised that if she was going to keep her writing ticking over at all, all she could manage was a haiku. So she made a resolution to write a haiku every day, for a year. And did. Like most people who make a living... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The third 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. H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald Helen Macdonald was a young academic when her photojournalist father suddenly died. She had flown and worked with birds of prey as a hobby, but now she decided to buy and train a young goshawk: the biggest as well as... 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 →


Where do you start your story?

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer's dictum of "Start as near the end as possible". Later, I encountered the thriller-writer's "Get in late and get out early", which is a double-ended version of the same idea. Certainly it's rare for me to see a beginner's novel that starts "too late" in the story, whereas perhaps the majority either simply should start at what's currently chapter three, or the writer's realised that, and tacked a zingy prologue onto the beginning, in the (entirely folorn) hope that it will compensate... 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 →


All the posts I mentioned at HNS London 2014

It's just been London's turn for the Historical Novel Society Conference, and as part of a packed programme, Suzannah Dunn and I were asked to give a workshop on "Figures of Speech: Recreating Past Voices". That too, was packed: it's just as well no one else turned up or we'd have had people sitting on the floor! As is the way, I found myself referring quite often to posts on the blog, so here's a roundup of the ones I remember, and any others which seem relevant. Do say in the comments if I've missed any, or there are any... 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 →