Teaching Writing

"Who's Telling the Story?" All the posts I mentioned at City University CW MA

Yesterday evening I spent a couple of hours working with the students of City University's collected Creative Writing MA courses. It's a two-year MA, structured round writing a complete project - novel, non-fiction or script, and my talk was called "Who's Telling the Story? Voice, viewpoint and narrative in fiction and creative non-fiction", and in the course of it, several blog posts were mentioned: I promised I'd post the links when I got a moment. So, here they are, and if anyone who was there can remember one I've forgotten, then do mention it in the comments, and I'll dig... 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 →

How-To-Write books: Addicted to them? Revolted by them?

A while ago, my writer friend Annie Caulfield and I recorded a podcast for the Royal Literary Fund's new series, Writers Aloud. I was just beginning to try my hand at writing radio plays, and Annie, whose fantastic Writing for Radio I knew before Annie and I met as fellow RLF Fellows at Goldsmiths, was trying her hand at writing novels. We had a lot of fun making the recording (hats off to the producer, Kona McPhee, for disentangling it into something coherent!), and now the RLF has turned what we talked about into three 30 minute podcasts. The first... 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 →

Making a living from writing books: what works, what doesn't

[17th July 2018: edited to update ALCS figures] So the Authors' Licensing and Collecting Society has done a survey, and found that the median average income for professional writers (i.e. those who spend the majority of their working time writing) has fallen by 42% since 2005, and 15% since 2013. The number of writers who get all their income from writing is down from 40% to 13.7%, and the median annual income of a professional writer now stands at £10,500, which equates to £5.73 per hour (the national minimum wage is currently £7.83). And I know anecdotally that advances are... Read more →

Picked up a bad book? Think of it as a good one.

It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start. On the other hand, a lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you... 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 →

What is passive voice, and why are you told to avoid it?

There seems to be confusion between the actual grammar of active and passive voice, and prose that's accused of being "passive". So, let's start with the bare facts. When the action - the verb - of a sentence is being performed by the subject of the sentence, the sentence is in active voice. This kind of subject + verb + object construction is the basic building block of English. Anne chases the cat. The dog bit Ben. Here, the action is being done by the subject of the sentence: "Anne chases" and "The dog bit". When the action is being... 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 →

Not just fluff: don't reject positive feedback

I've blogged before about how critiquing works best if there's a good fit between critiquer and critiquee, but it still amazes me how many aspiring writers think that positive comments - even those on their own work - are useless. The praise on the outside of a praise sandwich is far more than mere sugar to make the filling more palatable - though side-stepping natural, human defensive deafness or resistance is one of its functions. Yes, a vague "this is wonderful" is no more useful a critique than a vague "this is shit", though it hurts less. And yes, if... Read more →

Procrastinating Again? And Again? And Again?

[ETA 1st May 2020:] When I was asked to record a short film for the Royal Literary Fund, about a writing talisman, there was really only one thing I could honestly talk about: the Instant Gratification Monkey. His role and character has changed hugely since I wrote this post six years ago, so do click through to the RLF Showcase to watch it. *** When things are quiet on here, I know a post about procrastination will liven it up, but things are pretty lively at the moment. However, I've come across a post about it on the splendid Wait... Read more →

Creative writing commentaries: don't know where to start?

The first commentary on any creative writing that I had to write - or read - was the 30,000 word commentary I wrote for my PhD in Creative Writing. I didn't find it easy. The next I tangled with were the 300 word commentaries that my Open University students have to write for their course. They don't - most of them - find it easy either. Of course, most writers take some kind of notice of what happened along the road of writing a piece, if only to try to abate the agony a bit next time; some even keep... Read more →

Join us on the Itch of Writing Workshop Retreat 6th-8th June 2014

SORRY! ONLY ONE PLACE LEFT ON THIS COURSE! Click here for more details If you'd like to be added to the mailing list to hear about any cancellations, or future courses, or both, then email me at the address on the right hand side. Writing can be - and maybe should be - stitched into your everyday life. But sometimes a short break, leaving all the quotidian rubbish behind, can free you to think, play, experiment and submerge in a project in a way which is very difficult when your mind is cluttered with the school run and the annual... Read more →

SOMETIMES... 20 things about writing that don't get said often enough

Sometimes less is less and more is more. Sometimes telling a story demands Telling, not Showing. Sometimes only an external, "third-person" narrator will do. Sometimes only far-out psychic distance will do. Sometimes point-of-view needs changing frequently. Sometimes a jump-cut between scenes destroys all the narrative tension. Sometimes present tense is less immediate and more stilted. Sometimes first person is more distanced and less evocative. Sometimes third person can go more deeply into a character. Sometimes only an adjective or three, and an adverb or three, will do. Sometimes long sentences are more fast-moving, more direct, more dramatic than short sentences... Read more →

How do you decide when to share your draft?

I've blogged before about how to give feedback, and how you decide when it's time to stop revising. I've even suggested 16 Questions to ask a critique and a critiquer. But how do you decide when to share your draft? Some show their partner every day's work: the writerly equivalent of the cinema's dailies. Some don't show a soul their first or even their tenth draft. Most of us are somewhere in between, but the what and when and who are still worth thinking about:. Are you thinking of sharing a crazy first draft? The plus is that you might... Read more →

Sentence, Eloquence and Exercise: books for sentence wranglers

Painters have paint, choreographers have bodies, sculptors have bronze, musicians have chords and tunes. Writers have sentences. Not words, sentences, because a word which isn't in relation to another word can only be something, not do anything. In a letter Flaubert once described himself as "Itching with sentences", that is, with chains of words connected up to make a meaning. Flaubert's itch wouldn't be cured until he got the sentences - the meanings - out, and heading towards readers. I do love reading good sentences, and try to write them, and I know from the response to my sixty versions... Read more →

Why Do I Write?

I normally try to talk about myself on this blog only when it might help to illuminate something for others, but I was asked to write a piece about why I write for the forum of the Royal Literary Fund Fellows. It occurred to me that it might amuse or, better still, get you thinking about your own reasons for writing. I write, I used to say, because it's the only respectable reason I've found for not doing the washing up. Then my first novel was published, and writing became another kind of washing up: not an escape from the... Read more →

Would love to do a writing course but "don't know any grammar"?

A couple of weeks ago, a writer emailed to say that he was interested in joining the course that Debi Alper and I teach, on Self-Editing Your Novel. He thought it might be what he needed, but was worried that he knows nothing about the technical side of writing, wouldn't be any use at the workshopping aspects of the course, and would look and feel a fool in consequence. He's not the first writer, by any means, to admit in a private email what he or she can't bring themselves to display in even the mildly public space of a... Read more →

Exercises, heroes and your hat-check girl's journey

A writing exercise which the wonderful Debi Alper taught me is to write a two-character scene in first person, from the point of view of Character A (who might be yourself). Then you re-write it, as exactly as you can, from the point of view of Character B. Then you pick one viewpoint, re-write the scene with an external narrator (i.e. in third person), and move point of view once, finding the most effective moment in the scene to shift. Even with veterans, this exercise can be salutary, and in several different ways. - The Other character becomes pure character-in-action.... Read more →