Inspiration

Freewriting: What is it? Why should you use it?

The run-up to NaNoWriMo (more about that here) seems a good moment to think about Freewriting. You might have met its first cousin as Morning Pages, in Julia Cameron's The Artist's Way, and in the great, original how-to-write book, Becoming a Writer, Dorothea Brande suggests something similar. It has many uses, but first let's think about what it actually is. In Writing Without Teachers, Peter Elbow describes it beautifully: The idea is simply to write for ten minutes (later on, perhaps fifteen or twenty). Don't stop for anything. Go quickly without rushing. Never stop to look back, to cross something... Read more →


"Amaris has to tell Baz stuff but the scene is wooden"

This question popped up recently on a forum: "I've just reached a point in my WIP where two characters get together after a while apart and one has to tell the other what's been happening. It's important stuff. I haven't found it easy, but I never find it easy to write the 'telly' stuff - particularly the links between the telling and the rest of the scene that is happening around them. Anybody have any words of wisdom?" There were some good responses, and I found mine developing into a blog post, so here we are. So if Amaris has... Read more →


Getting Ready for NaNoWriMo? A few tips.

So, it's National Novel Writing Month again, or it will be on Sunday: to its friends, November is NaNoWriMo. The idea is that you have a month - and nearly the shortest month of the year - in which to write a complete novel. True, their target is 50,000 words, which is too short for most industry definitions of a novel for adults: the real point is that it you're planning to create a complete story - a beginning, a middle and an end. Not a notebook full of bits of scenes, not an endless tweak of the first 15,000... Read more →


Changing places: (when) should you disguise the place you're writing about?

Anxious aspiring novelists post questions on forums: Are they allowed to use a real village for their story? If they make one up, will people not like the story? Are they allowed to change the name of a street in Manchester? Are they allowed to create an extra island for Hong Kong? Regular Itch-readers won't be surprised that my first reaction is that it's not a matter of "allowing". Your story? Your rules. Coming at it from the reviewer's side, Stuart Kelly, in The Guardian, has also been asking why novelists disguise real locations, and it's a good question. Some... 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 →


"Everything About My Writing Is Awful And No, I'm Not OK."

I'm talking about those times when writing seems impossible but so does everything else: when your heart - your life itself - is stapled to the page and no one wants it. And that heart, the life itself, is a miserable, clichéd, shrivelled thing, and you a deluded, talentless fool for ever dreaming that you might have something worth saying which people would want to hear. Just as the Guardian's Work-Agony Uncle Jeremy Bullmore inspired me to track down Jerusha Cowless and recruit her to This Itch of Writing, this brilliant post about that feeling in your life as a... Read more →


No time to write your novel? Think about coral reefs...

I can't say that my revered great-great-grandpapa often occurs to me when I'm thinking about how writing works, but one of his important pieces of research was into the formation of coral reefs. It had been known for a while that coral was formed by microscopic organisms building on rocks in shallow water: cell by cell, miniature birth by miniature death. But how did they become whole islands and atolls out in the deep ocean? His observations on the Beagle voyage became his first published monograph. My daytime writing time is taken up with Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction,... Read more →


Where's the real story? Not where you expected?

I hope I'm a kind and supportive teacher, I certainly don't tolerate seminar bullies, and I can honestly say that the only time I've been aware of tears in a workshop I was running was nothing to do with anyone's hurt feelings, and everything to do with writing fiction. Since the business of fiction is largely about imaginatively inhabiting consciousnesses and experiences which are not one's own, I had set the group an exercise of writing a scene from the point of view and voice of their main character, though not necessarily an event from the story. First I got... Read more →


Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "Everyone says my writing's competent, but I'm not getting anywhere"

There have been two exciting developments: first, I have a new website specifically for my work helping other writers, so if you're interested in my mentoring, teaching, events or appraisals, do click through to This Itch of Writing: The Studio, and have a browse. And then, just as I was recovering from the worst of the website-wrangling, I heard from This Itch of Writing's agony aunt, Jerusha Cowless. She's been busy un-contacting un-contacted peoples in the Upper Amazon, but at last I got a message through, enclosing a plea for help from an aspiring writer, and Jerusha sent her reply... Read more →


Being drunk, being sober: which should you be when you're writing?

At an event recently, the poet Rowan Williams was reading some of his favourite poems by other poets, and he was asked what he looks for - hopes for - when he comes to a poem for the first time. For someone who's so clever and so erudite (not the same thing) his answer was wonderfully simple: "I hope to go into a poem sober, and come out a little bit drunk." And I know exactly what he means. I'm not a poet, and I don't read poetry in an organised, professional way. But there are always one or two... 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 →


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 →


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 →


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 →


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 →


Writing, writing, writing

I'm spending a few days in Devon, at Retreats for You, having a nice rest from the WIP by tackling a short piece I've been wanting to write for ages. So I apologise for the lack of a post, and when I get home I'll be putting up the next winner of the 500th Postiversary Competition. Meanwhile, this photo is what it was like down on the river-path at 7.30 this morning. It's also rather symbolic of how this new project feels at the moment. I'm about to go and get some fresh milk and banana bread from downstairs, and... Read more →


Time to revise, but how will I know if I'm making it better, not worse?

Everyone knows about the terror of the blank page that you've just written Chapter One at the top of. Some writers spend weeks approaching it, dabbing a couple of words on, and deleting them. Others research for a decade in order to avoid getting to the blank page moment at all. And one of the chief reasons that the crazy/shitty first draft principle works for so many people is that suddenly the cost of failure isn't so high: this was only a crazy first draft, after all. Anything goes to get words on the page; we'll turn them into the... Read more →


Is it worth it?

In Conditional Validation I was talking about how Malcolm Bradbury saying "They're good. Keep going" was enough for Ian McEwan to - well - keep going. We tend to think that the "they're good" is the important bit of that, but I more and more think that in some ways "Keep going" - said by someone whose knowledge and judgement you trust - is just as important. The thing is, they're two sides of the real question, which is "Is this worth doing?". Mind you, Hilary Mantel said on Front Row that having won the Booker twice is no help... 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 →


But can you teach Creative Writing?

I get asked this amazingly often, considering that no one ever asks if you can teach the doing of other arts, but, just as I took ages to get on to that other old chestnut, "What is literary fiction?" and my own personal Ancestral Elephant, it's taken me till now to sort out what I think clearly enough to answer the question. My answer, mind you, depends on how long I've got, but it comes from someone who wrote for fifteen years before being taught, (and my thoughts on the pros and cons of writing courses are here) but now... Read more →