Short Stories

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 →


The Itch of Writing Bookshelf 4: Careless People by Sarah Churchwell

Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. CARELESS PEOPLE: Murder, Mayhem and the Invention of The Great Gatsby, by Sarah Churchwell Just as the young, rich(ish) Mid-Western writer Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda were packing for the East in 1922, a very ordinary, young married woman and her lover were discovered in New Jersey, shot through the head. The murder case became a national sensation, and Fitzgerald followed it as he and Zelda settled... Read more →


Ring-fencing Writing Time

I don't make New Year's Resolution of the "Must do better, be slimmer, sweeter, nicer, harder working and learn to windsurf" sort. But a writer friend whose work I really admire, and so do lots of proper critics, said recently that at one stage of her apprenticeship, when she was insanely broke and insanely busy, she realised that if she was going to keep her writing ticking over at all, all she could manage was a haiku. So she made a resolution to write a haiku every day, for a year. And did. Like most people who make a living... Read more →


The Itch of Writing Bookself 3: H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

The third in a new series of mini-reviews that focus on what a book I've enjoyed has to offer a writer. Click here for the full (or rather, rapidly filling) Itch of Writing Bookshelf, and if you're looking for books to help with your writing directly, then click through to Books for Writers. H IS FOR HAWK by Helen Macdonald Helen Macdonald was a young academic when her photojournalist father suddenly died. She had flown and worked with birds of prey as a hobby, but now she decided to buy and train a young goshawk: the biggest as well as... 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 →


Ten Ways to Move Point-of-View (and don't let the self-appointed experts tell you otherwise)

If you've been hanging around the Itch for any length of time, you'll know that I think the creeping Creative Writing orthodoxy that you can't change point of view except between chapters is nonsense. (Click here for my full series of posts on PoV if you're not so sure what we're on about when we talk about point of view.) It's a "rule" which has only been invented in the last twenty years or so, peddled by would-be writers who don't know good writing when they see it, and, I suspect, writing teachers who don't know how to teach it:... Read more →


Listen Again to my story "Calling" on Radio 4 Extra

I'm delighted that the story I wrote for Radio 4 has been repeated on Radio 4 Extra. Click here to Listen Again for the next four weeks.* Twelve-year-old Tom and his sister first came to Brighton after they lost their father in the great storm of 1883. They left their mother at her new job in the big house and walked to their lodgings in the Lanes. But in the middle of the night Tom hears their mother calling for them. And in trying to find her, he finds his own future. But, of course, that's only how the story... Read more →


Where do you start your story?

One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer's dictum of "Start as near the end as possible". Later, I encountered the thriller-writer's "Get in late and get out early", which is a double-ended version of the same idea. Certainly it's rare for me to see a beginner's novel that starts "too late" in the story, whereas perhaps the majority either simply should start at what's currently chapter three, or the writer's realised that, and tacked a zingy prologue onto the beginning, in the (entirely folorn) hope that it will compensate... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2014

... and some others which might be useful. As always, Writers' Workshop's Festival of Writing at York was a brilliant, bewildering long weekend, stuffed with workshops, talks, keynote speeches, book signings, and oceans of talking and drinking and eating and writing. As well as the mini-course on Self-Editing Your Novel that Debi Alper and I gave on Friday afternoon, I taught workshops on prose - Plain & Perfect, Rich & Rare - and on The Heart of Storytelling: three- and five-act structure. I sat on an industry panel about Historical Fiction, and I did lots of one-to-one Book Doctor sessions,... 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 →


Judging writing: why does presentation matter?

I've had a lovely, tricky time as one of the judges for the Historical Novel Society's Award for 2014, and the results are here. There were some great stories, and we had a right old barny between the three of us to decide the winners. And then the other day I bumped into Jacqueline Molloy, whose marvellous story "Wake" won first place at the Frome Festival competition in 2011. I don't know if I or she was more surprised at how much I remembered of it, but it's got me thinking. My friend Susannah Rickards' guest-blogs about being a filter... Read more →


Ten Top Tips for Writing Sex Scenes

I've pondered the odd business of writing sex before, but a good post by US writer Sebstien de Castell, about writing fight scenes, made me start thinking about it again. Sex and violence are hard (that's only the first double entendre) to write because both kinds of arousal involve an altered mental and emotional state which interacts with relatively complex choreography; what happens isn't built of words even if words are involved. Fiction has the same complexity, because it tells stories through characters-in-action as drama does, but in nothing but words. It evolved so richly because it can evoke and... Read more →


Writing outside your comfort zone

A friend, Colin Mulhern, who writes gritty contemporary YA fiction, posted in a Facebook group of writers: "I've got one idea that's been bouncing around for a while, but it's just a bit... predictable. I read a novel right out of my comfort zone while I was away, and loved it." What did we all think about writing outside one's comfort zone? A Good thing, or a Bad one? Some would say Good as a point of principle. Those who have to pay the rent with their writing would say Bad, since the risk is you'll produce something you can't... 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 →


Chapter breaks and other joints

A writer friend has said that her book-length manuscript has arrived on the page with scarcely any chapters at all: should she put them in? Terry Pratchett doesn't, says another writer. A fellow workshopper was really bothered by how my novel (The Mathematics of Love, since you ask) had several parts to shape a bigger architecture, but not an equal number of chapters in each. One highly successful writer of light women's fiction doesn't put the chapters in till she's written the whole thing, because only then does she know where they should be. Whereas I plan in chapters right... 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 →


Don't plot, just play Fortunately-Unfortunately

I've been plotting a novel recently, and one of the things I've done to help myself see if my story really was embodied in my plot (click here for the difference between plot and story), was to write a long, blueprint-like synopsis. And about three-quarters of the sentences in it were two-parters, hinging on a "but". Whatever action or situation was set up in the first half of the sentence was confounded, confused, contradicted or compromised by what was in the second half. What's more, if you look at the blurb on just about any novel or life-writing, it's doing... Read more →


Giving a Reading Part Two - On the Night

This is the second part of a two-part series: click here for Giving a Reading Part One - Getting Ready. (newly expanded 6/2/14) . I've given readings everywhere from a minute basement bookshop space to the Hay Festival, and of course the setup varies wildly, but here are some suggestions of things to think about, for you to pick and chose. If you have a publicist a good deal of the prep will be done for you, and she'll know the answer to a good many of the questions. But it's worth thinking about what you need, and asking her... 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 →