Creativity

Not just fluff: don't reject positive feedback

I've blogged before about how critiquing works best if there's a good fit between critiquer and critiquee, but it still amazes me how many aspiring writers think that positive comments - even those on their own work - are useless. The praise on the outside of a praise sandwich is far more than mere sugar to make the filling more palatable - though side-stepping natural, human defensive deafness or resistance is one of its functions. Yes, a vague "this is wonderful" is no more useful a critique than a vague "this is shit", though it hurts less. And yes, if... Read more →


Variety isn't just the spice of your story, it's the life-blood and bones

You know the manuscript (or, indeed, the published life-writing or novel) which doesn't grab you, though it all seems very competent? You know the kind of rejection which is the editor or agent saying that it's all very good but no thanks? The thing is, it may be good, but it's all the same kind of good. It's like travelling through a beautiful landscape by driving along a motorway at a steady 50mph in a comfortable car: you see it all, you may even have the windows open to smell the breeze, but you don't experience it bodily: which of... 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 →


When do you stop world-building?

Have you noticed how often fantasy and science fiction - speculative fiction - comes in fat trilogies? And how historical fiction is a bit that way inclined as well? That's partly because of the need for what spec fickers (rightly) call "world-building" and hist fickers (less wisely) call "the researched stuff". That's not just about the politics or logistics of two kingdoms being at war, or their technology, food or writing systems; it's also about the manners and mores of the inhabitants, the traditions, the religions, what the radicals are trying to make happen, gender relationships, psychotropic substances, and so... Read more →


Procrastinating Again? And Again? And Again?

[ETA 1st May 2020:] When I was asked to record a short film for the Royal Literary Fund, about a writing talisman, there was really only one thing I could honestly talk about: the Instant Gratification Monkey. His role and character has changed hugely since I wrote this post six years ago, so do click through to the RLF Showcase to watch it. *** When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait... Read more →


The Battle of Towton: 29th March 1461

Saturday 29th March was the anniversary of the Battle of Towton: the bloodiest battle ever fought on English soil. As you may know, my novel A Secret Alchemy is woven from three strands, two of the fifteenth century and one of our own time, so here is a scrap of thread from each: Una – Saturday We roll on up the motorway, out of the plump, low Midlands towards a bigger and rougher landscape of hills and moors and deep-carved river valleys. There are signs to the junction at Ferrybridge and I think of young Anthony seeing his beaten fellows... Read more →


Working hypothesis: write as if you're a writer

One of the things I often have to explain when I'm teaching academic writing is that it's important to define any terms you're working with, because if you don't make it clear how you're using them, then the first time anyone says, "But what about...?", the chain of persuasion, which is your argument, is broken. The thoughtful students look nervous: they know that concepts such as Modernism, or Need, or even The Eighteenth Century (1713-1789? 1660-1815?), are things which people write whole books about, arguing with other whole books. So we talk about working definitions: of the possible sensible, reasonable... Read more →


Creative writing commentaries: don't know where to start?

The first commentary on any creative writing that I had to write - or read - was the 30,000 word commentary I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing. I didn't find it easy. The next I tangled with were the 300 word commentaries that my Open University students have to write for their course. They don't - most of them - find it easy either. Of course, most writers take some kind of notice of what happened along the road of writing a piece, if only to try to abate the agony a bit next time; some even keep... Read more →


How do you decide which project to go for?

So, you've written a good deal of longish stuff, and know something of what it takes to sustain a project. And you've got lots of ideas for stories, and several of them look promising for a book-length project. The interactions and conflicts they set up might be enough to fuel a novel, or the seam of travel or life that you're drawing on is rich enough for your creative non-fiction. But of those promising ones, which should you commit to? How can you make sure that, some months of research and writing down the line, you won't realise that this... Read more →


Join us on the Itch of Writing Workshop Retreat 6th-8th June 2014

SORRY! ONLY ONE PLACE LEFT ON THIS COURSE! Click here for more details If you'd like to be added to the mailing list to hear about any cancellations, or future courses, or both, then email me at the address on the right hand side. Writing can be - and maybe should be - stitched into your everyday life. But sometimes a short break, leaving all the quotidian rubbish behind, can free you to think, play, experiment and submerge in a project in a way which is very difficult when your mind is cluttered with the school run and the annual... Read more →


The Anti-Writing Demon and the Must-Write Demon

These are my names for the two creatures who bedevil (well, they are demons) so many of us, so often. The Anti-Writing Demon conceives his job to be stopping you writing. At the beginning of your writing life he may succeed simply by telling you that your writing is silly, and you’re not entitled to spend the time on it, especially when you’ll only look a fool by exposing your soft underbelly of thought and feeling to the world. Why he’s appointed himself to this job is a question for the psychoanalysts, but what his job is, is simple: to... Read more →


How do you decide when to share your draft?

I've blogged before about how to give feedback, and how you decide when it's time to stop revising. I've even suggested 16 Questions to ask a critique and a critiquer. But how do you decide when to share your draft? Some show their partner every day's work: the writerly equivalent of the cinema's dailies. Some don't show a soul their first or even their tenth draft. Most of us are somewhere in between, but the what and when and who are still worth thinking about:. Are you thinking of sharing a crazy first draft? The plus is that you might... 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 →


Why Do I Write?

I normally try to talk about myself on this blog only when it might help to illuminate something for others, but I was asked to write a piece about why I write for the forum of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. It occurred to me that it might amuse or, better still, get you thinking about your own reasons for writing. I write, I used to say, because it's the only respectable reason I've found for not doing the washing up. Then my first novel was published, and writing became another kind of washing up: not an escape from the... Read more →


So...

... you put one thing in an essay - your agent says another thing in passing - you remember one of the lives you nearly chose to follow in one of those yellow-wood moments before you decided for something else; your agent says a second thing because of what you said; you remember one of the things you most loved when you were ten; you realise that another childhood love was a place which has been knocking on the doors of your brain for a couple of years now ... - and you have an idea - the first idea... Read more →


Postiversary Competition Highly Commended: Hairnet Aardvaark, by Lev Parikian

This is the last of of three Highly Commended entries to the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. I liked this post because it made me laugh and it's probably more true - though arguably less detailedly helpful - than all the other competition posts put together with the rest of the whole darned more-than-six-years' worth of This Itch of Writing. Having said that, if you want to bag yourself a Highly Commended, then grossly flattering the competition organiser in the second paragraph is no bad strategy either. "A blog post, 500 words at most, which is helpful, interesting... 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 →


Exercises, heroes and your hat-check girl's journey

A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways. - The Other character becomes pure character-in-action.... Read more →


Postiversary Competition Highly Commended: Dark Matter, Dark Glass and Anne Tyler by Sophie Beal

This is the second of three Highly Commended entries to the This Itch of Writing 500th Postiversary Competition. I like this piece because it made me laugh, in a rueful, recognising sort of way, but also because it its own blog-sized way it's doesn't shirk the big questions. Sometimes I’m overwhelmed by literary ambition. I aim for the prose quality of Anne Tyler, the themes of Tolstoy and hope I’ll produce it at the speed of Dickens. Today is a good day. I’m happy to be someone trying her best with an English GCSE, a recordable IQ and no one... Read more →