"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 →

Historical Fiction: History You Can Live Inside

On several mornings recently I've walked from London Bridge Station, past Southwark Cathedral and the Globe, along Bankside and across the river in sparkling sunlight to the very centre of the old City of London: St Paul's Cathedral. The street names, the roast pig in Borough Market, the spiders-web steel and plant-like trunks of the Millenium Bridge, the street names, the stones of St Paul's, all sing with history. So, to celebrate the launch of Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association, and my column in it, Dr Darwin's Writing Tips, I thought I'd post this, a version of... Read more →

Stand back and count to Nine

The big, Tony-winning hits of the broadway writer Maury Yesten are at opposite ends of the scale: Nine, which works beautifully as a chamber opera, and the vast Titanic. So my ear was caught, the other day, when I heard him talking about the difference. Clearly he doesn't scorn the dancing sets and known movie story (Nine is based on Fellini's 8½). Nor does he reject the need to appeal to non-English-speaking tourists (the economic lifeblood of Broadway as it is of the West End). After all, spectacle has been part of the theatre ever since theatre existed, and I've... Read more →

This Happy Fellow: my year at Goldsmiths

The Royal Literary Fund Fellow's job is simple, on paper. We are professional authors who are paid by the RLF to spend two days a week, in term time, for a year, supporting academic writing across the whole of an academic institution. Most are universities, but conservatoires and art schools also have RLF Fellows, and the students who come range from first years who've never written an essay to postgrads in the very middle of the PhD muddle, and staff struggling with a presentation. Their problems can be anything from "What does "critically analyse' mean?" to "I need a Distinction... Read more →

London Road Calling

Last week I went to see London Road at the National Theatre. It's a verbatim play: its script contains nothing but things real people actually said over two years from the first of the Ipswich Murders, to the conviction of the murderer. And as we discussed it, I remembered the part of the Writing for Radio course I've just done, where we explored the use you could make of pre-existing spoken-word material - news broadcasts, for example, or other kinds of sound clip, right back to the days when you tuned your wireless from the Local or the National, and... 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 →

The opposite is also true

A notably relaxed Christmas must be making my mind even flakier and easily knocked off-course than usual: when I turned on the radio and heard about crisis talks in Northern Ireland that awful, sick fear came over me as it does over anyone over a certain age: "Oh God! What now?" So when it turned out that the crisis was an acute water shortage, I started to laugh. Yes, it's clearly no joke at all for those suffering from it, but hey! not so long ago a headline like that would have heralded some new horror in what we once... Read more →

Guest Post: Where Writing Meets Baseball

One of the pleasures of blogging is meeting people who I might not have met otherwise, and such a person is Barbara Baig, a hugely experienced writer and teacher of writing in the US. Her new book How to be a Writer is a fascinating how-to book which can guide anyone to become a better and more interesting writer than they are, and therefore also an exploration of the practice of writing, in all senses of the word: the kind of thing which I think of as yoga for writers. So when Barbara told me about the research which suggests... Read more →

Opening the doors

One of the odder corners of my beloved Radio 3 is the slot for really avant garde contemporary music, Hear and Now. But I love a contrast - I'm a hot chocolate sauce on cold ice cream kind of a gal - so I was lying in the bath last night, reading Georgette Heyer and listening to a programme from Cut and Splice, a festival of electronic music. The piece was as much sound art as music, really, an extraordinary plaiting and weaving of white noise and sound, the fading-in-and-out of the old Medium and Short Wave radio and so... Read more →

Okay, so what do I think literary fiction is?

It's a hardy perennial of a question among writers, because it matters, from which agent might represent you to what cover your book might get. The writers' forums seethe with arguments about "any book worth reading" to "would you call Dickens literary?" to "pointless pretentious rubbish" or even (seriously) "a book only academics will like". The latter can't be true, because there can't be enough academics in the world to account for the combined sales of Margaret Atwood, Ian McEwan, Barbara Kingsolver, Helen Dunmore, Hilary Mantel, Peter Ackroyd, Barry Unsworth, Philip Roth, Jonathan Franzen, Martin Amis, Beryl Bainbridge, Gabriel Garcia... Read more →

Two or three ways of thinking about a sieve

I've always read poetry, but it was workshopping other students' poetry at Glamorgan, under the aegis of the likes of Sheenagh Pugh, Gillian Clarke and Tony Curtis, that taught me a bit about how poetry works: most particularly contemporary poetry, where it's so much less obvious what the poet is doing and how they're doing it. The rest of what I know about how poetry works I chiefly learnt from Ruth Padel's 52 Ways of Looking At A Poem. Now I go to readings, and work on poems and poetic techniques as part of developing my prose, and get my... Read more →

Not sick of self-love

In Lots of Them I was agreeing that loving the sound of your own voice is a bad thing in a writer; it's like the dinner-party talker who is so busy singing their song that they ignore who their audience is and how they're reacting. And of course the fact that with a novel the singer and the audience are at one remove from each other doesn't absolve you of the duty - not to mention the common commercial horse-sense - to consider them. Then, as I said in Fiddling, hangovers and the Paris Review, we all love the sound... Read more →

Writing for radio part 1: the call

A couple of weeks ago I got an email from a radio producer who I'd sent some work to - the same producer who commissioned Kellie Jackson's story last year, which Kellie guest-blogged about here. This producer is commissioning a series of three stories from writers new to radio, and would I be interested in writing one of them? As so often, the timing was quite tight, with the recording due at the end of June, for transmission in early August. And as it's part of a set of three the location and theme were set. We talked on the... Read more →

Anarchy rules

One of the things that you have to learn, as part of learning to write, is what to do about feedback. As I've said in various places, including the post in Resources on the pros and cons of writing courses, it's basically a choice of accepting, adapting, or ignoring what you're told. That's true whether the feedback is about work in progress or work that's published, and it's true regardless of who's giving the feedback, although who that is will affect your choice. In fact, I sometimes think that the most comforting thing to remember, when criticism stings or even... Read more →

The real sixth sense

Have you ever learnt a dance step, or a musical instrument, or a tennis stroke? Felt how it gradually makes sense, how getting your weight in the right place makes the other arm move sweetly to where it needs to be, over and over again, whether it's a bow or a golf club? How suddenly your dancing body finds its place in the music, so that you're free by virtue of being part of the pattern? Can you imagine now, this minute, riding a bicycle down the road, pedal by pedal, push and turn and swoop? No, not the road... Read more →

The pause that isn't a pause

Trust a drummer to know about silence. Over on Radio 3's Private Passions last Sunday, Stewart Copeland, late of The Police and more recently not unknown to opera houses, was talking to his fellow composer Michael Berkeley. I'm saving his comment, about how the beauty went out of modern music when it became an algorithm rather than a sentiment, for my official rant about what might happen to academic creative writing as it finally follows music into universities. But he said so much else which made sense to me as a writer. The thing about drummers (I've a feeling he'd... Read more →

The second simplicity of a bowl of cherries

One of the classically irritating things non-writers say to us is "I've always wanted to write a novel, I just need the the time to sit down." Once we're out on bail, most writers still burn to explain that just sitting down isn't all it takes to write a novel. It takes hard work, craft, imagination, a lot of thinking, a lot of reading, learning, practising, and more sitting down than most people would believe possible. It's also frequently frustrating: some days/weeks/years the words come about as readily as wisdom teeth pull out, and I'm sure I'm not the only... Read more →

Twenty minutes and no clarinets

Over on Radio 3 they're knee-deep in Haydn at the moment, it being his bicentenary and all. In his lifetime he was considered the greatest composer in Europe, the kind of accolade which seems to end in plummeting stock once someone's heirs begin to have their Oedipal way (cf Mendelssohn - another revelation of this year of anniversaries - being murdered by Wagner). But not any longer: Haydn's risen again in critical esteem since the 70s, when I was told that if it sounded like Mozart, but was duller and you didn't recognise it, then it was Haydn. And of... Read more →

How about flying to the moon?

One of the nice things about doing festivals, as opposed to other readings and events, is that you actually bump into not just other authors (I have lots of authorly friends, but mostly writing for the same kind of readers as I do myself) but other kinds of authors. This time, it was the Hay Festival, and I found myself sharing a car back to Hereford Station with Paul Stewart and Chris Ridell. They write The Edge Chronicles and other children's fantasy together, and we started talking about what it's like writing as a team. Scriptwriters often do it, in... Read more →

Ugly ducklings and wonky ducks

So I was flipping through a notebook, looking for something else, and I came across a scribble. Learning, as a writer, to get out of your own way/light was all it said. I can't remember what prompted me to say that, nor decide what exactly I must have meant. And then I was talking to an aspiring writer who's hit the ugly duckling stage, where their knowledge and skill in writing have gone up a step, but they have yet integrate that into their writing, so everything's awkward and self conscious, and in lots of ways the new writing seems... Read more →