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 →

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 →

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 →

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. But it's getting ever harder to believe that I'll get a second book published."

Dear Jerusha: I'm at the getting-one-book-published-was-a-fluke-and-it'll-never-happen-again stage. Sometimes I can cope with it; sometimes I feel lousy and can't bear anyone to mention books, writing, publishers, agents or anything remotely writing-related. I have to keep telling myself it's not disease, death, war, torture, bereavement etc. and to keep things in perspective. Not helped this week by a genuinely kind antipodean relative texting to ask "When's the book coming out". It isn't faith in my writing that I've lost. I really don't know how I'd cope with that. But the longer the time goes on the harder it is to believe... Read more →

Getting through the door in the wall

I've blogged before about procrastination, whether it's happening because your Inner Critic has found a dozen reasons for you Not Getting On With It, or he's declaring that it's all been done already, or he's dressed up as someone else to persuade you. Or sometimes you've dealt with all of those and still can't write, because you've simply run out of fuel. But, assuming your Inner Critic has been gagged and bound, you're brimming over with ideas and energy for the next piece of writing work, you've cleared the house and the diary of humans... so many of us still... 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 →

Jerusha Cowless, agony aunt: "Do I go with my head and finish the book that I think has a good chance? Or go with my heart and write the stuff I really enjoy?

Dear Jerusha - I'm currently working on my WIP, a thriller/drama which I think is a really good idea and I love the plot. However, I'm struggling to get motivated with it. But after churning out a few short stories this week, I've realised just how much I love writing humorous stuff. It just feels more natural. I have an idea for a chick-lit style novel, but I know this market is declining rapidly. So what do I do? Go with my head and finish the book that I think has a good chance? Or go with my heart and... Read more →

Work in regress?

When I asked Twitter last night what I should blog about, one suggestion was "How do you know when to give up on a work-in-progress? Or when to stop and come back? Or when to re-conceptualise the project?". It was a good question, so thank you Damon Young, although I'm absolutely sure there isn't a clear-cut answer, because it's always going to depend on you and the night and the music.... Sorry, you and the write(ing) and the novel. So, I think the best I can do is suggest some things to ask yourself and the novel, in the hope... Read more →

Dreaming the map: the efficiency of magic

You can't assume that someone who takes a day to write six words must be a finer artist and greater writer than someone who writes sixteen thousand: after all, would you say that Yeats is a greater writer than Dickens? And, indeed, you'll know how valuable I think the NaNoWriMo approach to first drafts "building up without tearing down" can be. And then novelist Sally Hinchcliffe pointed me to this post. Rachel Aaron explains how, with a new baby, and some very tight deadlines for a new novel, she had to re-think radically how she worked. I approached it rather... Read more →

The Prig's Writ, and Other Writers' Stories

In the comments on my post How Don't You Do It?, Glen says that he's been in writers' groups where: they regard any form of deliberate intentionality in the first draft stage (as opposed to the later reworking stages) to be completely noxious to any eventual artistic merit. Now, this is all fine, but then these authors seem to imply that EVERYONE has to do it this way, or else you're being a fool to yourself and a burden to others (so to speak.) I know exactly the kind of conversation Glen means - and I speak as one who's... Read more →

Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "How can I make a good, quiet and put-upon character more interesting to readers?"

Dear Jerusha: I had a one-to-one with an agent who said she felt my main character was rather dull and not pro-active enough. She was afraid that, not being like the usual feisty heroines who buck the system, my MC might fail to grab the reader's attention, and my writing friends have said similar things. I fully appreciate what they mean but I have struggled to correct the problem. The thing is, she is meant to be a bit 'wet' for want of a better word, or at least she is to begin with. She has to overcome this and... Read more →

Yours to remember and mine to forget

I'm reading a fascinating book, The Agony & The Ego: the art and strategy of fiction writing explored, which is a collection of essays by all sorts of writers from Robertson Davies to Marina Warner, by way of the Johns Mortimer and Banville, and Sara Paretsky. It's edited by Clare Boylan, and it's out of print; I got it from the library, but it's so brilliant that I've just bought a copy secondhand, partly so I can read it in the bath with a clear conscience, and take a pencil to it too, but also because I know I'm going... Read more →

How don't you do it?

One of the things about becoming an author is that people start asking you for opinions and advice. But I've sometimes heard an author saying or writing things about How to Write (as opposed to How I Write, which is different) which have made me think, "Oh, help! I hope no one here thinks it's the only way, and/or the ticket to success!" That's not because I write better, or sell better, than whoever's talking. It's because I know that there are other ways than the one they've just described. The opposite is also true. I know of one aspiring... Read more →

Making a Scene

One of the things that's often recommended to neophyte writers of novels is to have one scene per chapter. And someone then asks "What's a scene?" and someone else "How long should a chapter be?" And they're right that the two things are interrelated, but I don't think one-scene-per-chapter is necessarily the best solution. And the length any chapter "ought" to be is actually determined by what you think a chapter is. So, what's going on? We all know what a scene is in a play, of course... or do we? English drama packs multiple comings and goings into a... Read more →

Post(card) from Devon

So I'm not really blogging, because I'm buried in Devon at the entirely wonderful Retreats for You. So here, instead, is a little taste of my walk this afternoon (after 2000 words, in front of log fire, before delicious supper NOT cooked by me). Read more →

The Inner Calvinist and the Petrol Pump

I've blogged about procrastination before in terms of the immediate moment, but what's causing it? Why do we fail to get on with the thing we love doing: writing? We've got a lot of our lives arranged around it, and our hopes and self esteem built on it, and if you earn your living as a writer that book you're trying to write underpins everything that pays the rest of the rent. So why is Write so often, actually, Not Write? At least commissioned work has disaster looming if you don't do it, and short work is visibly finite. But... Read more →

The Daemon and the Prig, by the man who saw the torturer's horse.

I've stumbled on something that Auden wrote to an aspiring teenage poet, John Cornford: The real problem though for you as for every other writer... is that of the Daemon and the Prig. Real poetry originates in the guts and only flowers in the head. But one is always trying to reverse the process and work one's guts from one's head. Just when the Daemon is going to speak the Prig claps his hand over his mouth and edits it. The idea of the daemon and the prig is of course at the root of the ideas of Shitty First... Read more →

Finding the first line

In the film of Michael Cunningham's The Hours, Leonard asks how Virginia's work is going, and she says (as I remember) "I think I've got the first line". A reviewer was scornful: how typical of Hollywood to have one banal speech standing in for the creative complexities of writing anything, let alone Mrs Dalloway. It is notoriously difficult to make drama out of writing (hence the clichés of the scrumpled pages and the clacking typewriter), but the reviewer was revealing how little he or she knows about writing fiction. I and lots of other writers know that's exactly how it... Read more →