Short Stories

WRITE YOUR FIRST NOVEL Part Seven: Point-of-View

In Part Seven we're thinking about point-of-view. Each post in Write Your First Novel is a series of short(ish) prompts and exercises which are designed to lead, step by small step, towards the first draft of a novel. It doesn't assume you already know the technical vocabulary that writers use, and the full series to date is collected together here. One more thing before we start. Everything on This Itch of Writing is free; I don't monetise it through advertising or clicks or affiliations or anything else, but simply put it out under a Creative Commons Licence (and if you'd... Read more →


Notes Made While Reading: books for writers

First things first. If you're busy with a shitty first draft, you will probably not want to get stuck into any of these just now - though some of them are just the right size for a stocking. Hurling a story down any old way that comes, "building up, not tearing down" as the NaNoWriMo website puts it, is usually not helped by an attack of standing-outside-it-ness, of self-consciousness, or a cool new costume for your Inner Critic. But for the rest of us (and NaNo-ers in due course) these are all books that I've read recently which have been... Read more →


"How dare they?" Can you write fiction ethically, without clipping your own creative wings?

As you may know, I also have a column, Doctor Darwin's Writing Tips, over at Historia, the magazine of the Historical Writers Association. A version of this post first appeared there, but in an era when we've all become more sensitive to questions of cultural appropriation in the arts, it's relevant much more widely. Certainly if you want to build your story on people of another ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, (dis)ability, class or perhaps just wildly different life-experience, there's work to be done compared to what you'd need if you stayed inside your own. So the ideas and strategies I've... Read more →


"No tears in the writer, no tears in the reader": True or false? Plus choirboy syndrome

So, the poet Robert Frost said, "no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader". This, I think, we usually take as being about writers having to be willing to feel what they want their readers to feel. Indeed, although Wordsworth, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, famously describes poetry's origin as "emotion recollected in tranquillity", he goes on to say the emotion is contemplated till, by a species of reaction, the tranquillity gradually disappears, and an emotion, kindred to that which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced, and does itself actually exist in the... Read more →


They say my dialogue is weak. What do I do?

Fiction writers often talk as if we have to write in two completely different modes: dialogue, and everything else. There is a basic difference: while narration is, clearly, the writer's choice of words to convey a story, dialogue is trying to evoke how people who are not the writer actually speak. But if you've ever listened to recordings of real conversation - all ums and ers and going round in circles - you'll know that even the most naturalistic written dialogue is in fact very different. And by no means all fiction-writers and playwrights - who deal chiefly in dialogue... Read more →


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 →


Filtering: HD for your writing

"Filtering", as a technical issue in writing, probably wins the prize for Most Useful Concept With Most Unhelpful Name (although, for that prize, "Free Indirect Style" is a very close runner-up). But John Gardner called it that in one of Creative Writing's founding texts, The Art of Fiction, and Janet Burroway sets Filtering all out very clearly in her classic Writing Fiction, so we're stuck with the label. The basic idea is that writers very often use phrases which get between the reader and a straightforward representation and evocation of what's happening. Gardner describes it as: ... the needless filtering... Read more →


Psychic Distance: not just long-shot, but wide-angle, not just close-up, but narrow-beam

When Debi Alper or I are trying to explain Psychic Distance (which we very often are, since it can make such a spectacular difference to someone's writing), we often use the analogy of a film camera. We start with John Gardner's examples, which take the same moment in a story and re-tell it at five separate points on the psychic distance spectrum, and unpack them thus: 1) It was winter of the year 1853. A large man stepped out of a doorway. is like a long-shot: we can't discern much about the man. If we were even further away, depending... Read more →


Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction is published on 10th March

I'm ridiculously thrilled to have my author's copies of Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction sitting on my desk. It really does embody all the things I find myself saying when I'm teaching workshops and blogging, not just about historical fiction but writing fiction and creative non-fiction in general. Whether you're new to writing of any kind and have just fallen in love with a person or a period and can't rest till you've had a shot at bringing it to life on paper, or you're an experienced writer who's always loved reading historical fiction but have never dared to... 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 →


The only "rules" of writing are your rules. But you need to decide what they are.

There are lots of ways in which learning to write is like learning to drive, but the relationship of the craft to the rules and laws is not one of them. Whether it's that you should Show and Tell, or that "cut everything which includes was" is not only wrong but dangerous, I don't believe you should "know the rules before you can break them", because there are no rules (except copyright and libel, obviously), only tools, in writing. I've been talking a lot recently about writing historical fiction, and inevitably we discuss how you decide what you must research... Read more →


You will never annoy anyone if you present a manuscript like this

Well, I can't absolutely promise that, but pretty darned close. Of course this is subject to whatever the magazine, publisher, agency or editor says on their website that they want. And we are talking prose, here, not scripts or poetry, which run by different rules. But don't think that, just because we're in the digital age, what's used on computers has superseded what's used on manuscripts. The book is near-perfectly evolved technology for reading large amounts of prose, and the book and magazine trade still handles prose in those paper-based forms, even on screen. Digital design has evolved to suit... 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 →


Guest Post: In Praise of Sentences, by Barbara Baig

You probably know how cross I get when I hear of writers being told that they should stick to short sentences. I suspect it's sheer cowardice on the part of writers and teachers who haven't bothered to learn to control a long sentence, but it's also terribly stupid, because it deprives your writing of the energy and variety that you need if you're going to tell your story as effectively as possible: any writer worth their salt needs to be able to handle any kind of sentence. And it's doubly-terribly-stupid if you're ever trying to evoke other voices in narrative... 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 →


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 →


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 →


Writing Historical Fiction, Creative Darwins, The Genre Swap and other stories

There seems to have been a lot going on, lately, and if the blog's been a bit quiet, that's why. I'm up to my neck in the last work on Get Started in Writing Historical Fiction. It's due out mid-Autumn and, as ever, even when I've been living with a project for years, I can't quite believe that it is about to become a Real Book, but all the signs are there! And historical fiction's a bit of a theme elsewhere. Also in the autumn, I'll be heading down to Leith Hill Place, the lovely house where Ralph Vaughan Williams... 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 →