THE TOOLKIT

Basing Your Fiction on Real People? Can "Real" and "Fiction" live in the same book?

At October's Words Away Salon next Monday, the 16th, Kellie and I are delighted to be hosting Jill Dawson. We'll be talking about writing fiction based on real characters - recent or ancient. Jill is a poet and novelist, and a highly-regarded mentor of writers, and her most recent novel is The Crime Writer. That's about Patricia Highsmith, but she's also written The Great Lover, about Rupert Brooke, and Fred and Edie, based on a famous 1920s murder. So we thought she'd be the perfect person to start us off talking about this fascinating but very challenging kind of fiction,... Read more →


All the Posts I Mentioned at the York Festival of Writing 2017

I'm just back from the 2017 York Festival of Writing. If you don't know what I'm on about, this is a selection of posts from former years, and if you do, you'll know that the weekend was, as ever, packed with workshops, one-to-ones, lunches, dinners, breakfasts (yes, everyone talks writing even over the cornflakes and sausages, and through the hangover), agents, publishers, authors, writers and ducks. And, as ever, I mentioned various blog posts at various times to various people, as a way of expanding on whatever we were talking about. This, to the best of my ability, is a... Read more →


Events Round-up: Salons, (Not) Darwin & More

The fact that I'm online in a hotel bar perched above a staggeringly beautiful gorge in North Mexico is not something I'm typing just to make you jealous. I've squeezed in a few days away (photography, poetry, walking, trains ... my usual stuff) while I'm really here for work. But it's made me realise that it's been a while since I posted about what I'm up to in the next few months, so here goes. I don't know how many readers of This Itch of Writing live in or around Mexico City - although it never ceases to astonish me... Read more →


Mastering the tyranno-thesaurus

Among teachers of English at school-level, using a thesaurus is a Good Thing, being a means of enlarging children's vocabulary. But a ticked box for the maximum number of different words on the page is a poor substitute for teaching genuinely good writing, so among serious writers, and teachers of writing, using a thesaurus is often spoken of as a Very Bad Thing. And when you consider the thesaursed version of "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", which floats round the internet attributed to John Raymond Carson, you can see why: Scintillate, scintillate, globule vivific, Fain would I fathom thy nature specific.... Read more →


Lady Macbeth and rubber duckies; how much do you need to explain?

A couple of weeks ago I went to see the new film Lady Macbeth. The performances are marvellous, the direction remarkable - especially for a first feature - and costumes and settings are beautiful in a terrifyingly austere way. But I also noticed an aspect of the script which is extremely relevant to writing fiction and creative non-fiction, or anything else story-shaped. In neither script nor image does Lady Macbeth give you almost any backstory or side-story (my term, but you know what I mean), for any character or situation. We learn almost nothing beyond the edges of what we... Read more →


What is a non-linear narrative, and should my story be one?

Once upon a time, there were only stories which were about a single person, and they started at the beginning, proceeded by way of a middle stretch of causally linked events, through to the end. Then someone invented the word "meanwhile", and it became possible to tell a story in which that chain of events was partly formed or changed by what was happening or had happened to someone else and in a different place; the story began to step sideways, so as to draw this new set of causal relationships into the main chain of cause-and-effect. As readers and... Read more →


How To Tame Your Novel

A writer recently got in touch because he's overwhelmed by the novel he's writing. He has a story, and about two-thirds of a first draft, but it's feeling more and more impossible. There are loose ends, continuity clashes, scenes whose outcome is unconvincing and others which don't go anywhere; when he tries to write a scene it always grows in a direction which the plot won't allow, while if he tries to write the scenes that the plot needs, they're stiff and dead. What's more, each time he solves a problem - changes the time-scheme of a chapter, or a... 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 →


The Ten Things Which Most Often Go Wrong With Beginners' Fiction

Happy New Year! My post from this time last year collected Ten New Years Ideas For Everyone Who Writes, Or Wants To Write, and I though that an equivalent for the actual nuts and bolts of writing might be useful. Of course, every writer has their own specific strengths and weaknesses, and on a bad day the strengths feel awfully feeble, and the weaknesses depressingly strong. Indeed, it can be instructive, even encouraging, to make a list of what you think you're relatively good at and what you think you're relatively bad at, especially if you refuse to think "bad... Read more →


Is using semi-colons pretentious?

To add a little spice to the season of goodwill, may I propose that anyone who shouts at you that it's pretentious to use semi-colons in fictional prose is, themselves, being pretentious? As I was saying in Picked up a Bad Book? Think about it at as a Good One, if you want to widen as well as improve your craft it's good practice to assume that professional writers have good reasons for doing what appears to you to be a bad thing - and then ask yourself what that good reason might be. As my favourite handy punctuation site... 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 →


Should I do a Creative Writing MA?

I've blogged about whether, and when, a course in Creative Writing might be a good idea, and about how to choose the right one for you. And if you're wondering whether, and how, Creative Writing can be taught, this unpicks that hardy perennial of a question. But a quick search on the UCAS website shows 459 Masters-level courses in Creative Writing. True, part-time and full-time versions of the same course are being listed separately, but the darned things cost a fortune these days (though student loans are these days available for both part- and full-time study). So, assuming you're thinking... Read more →


My story is far too long. What do I do?

A writer recently howled on a forum that his novel was far too long: it was 180,000 words when people were saying that no agent will look at a book over 90,000. He did sense that there were things to cut, but didn't know where to begin. And how on earth was he to get it down to half the length - lose every other word, effectively - and still have a novel, not a blood-sodden mess? There are an awful lot of writers who have faced up to this problem, but actually it's two relatively separate problems: what length... Read more →


All the posts I mentioned at London Writers Café on Showing & Telling

The London Writers' Café is a longstanding group of fiction writers which holds all sorts of workshops, one-day retreats and critique events, and last Saturday I was asked to give a two-hour workshop on Showing & Telling. As ever, I mentioned several blog-posts, and I promised to round up the links and post them here, and a few others. I've missed one, or there's some other topic that you'd find useful, do say in the comments, and if I've got a post about it I'll dig it up. Andrew Stanton's TED talk on storytelling WordsAway evening Salons for Writers, at... Read more →


Make Your Novel Shine: all the posts I mentioned at the Words Away Salon

It was fantastic to see so many people at the inaugural Words Away Salon, "Make Your Novel Shine" at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall. Many thanks from Words Away's founder, Kellie Jackson, and me to everyone who came, and thanks too to the Tea House Theatre for being their excellent selves. It was a great evening: not just cake, wine, tea, and everyone making new writer friends, but a brilliantly insightful discussion with Andrew Wille, editor, writer and book-doctor: thanks most of all to him for his excellent ideas and inspiration. Andrew and I were talking specifically about how,... Read more →


Please don't hate me for loving synopses

The other day, without so much as a gun to my head, I willingly wrote a synopsis. Since synopses are, famously, at best a chore, at worst a nightmare, it was with mock-contrition that I murmured on Facebook that - sorry, hate me now, but ... I actually really enjoy writing them. The first ten comments were un-re-printable, but then my fellow synopsis-lovers cautiously put their heads above the parapet to agree with me. In the end there were ten or so of them, too, and we agreed, trying not to sound smug, that they can also be extremely useful... Read more →


Surviving a PhD (or MPhil) Viva: how to finish your degree in style

The Creative Writing PhD is now firmly rooted in the Arts and Humanities forest, even if it is a relative sapling, and if you're nontheless wondering what on earth someone doing a doctorate in writing is, well, doing, this post of mine should make that clear. If you don't feel that the full length of a PhD is necessarily for you, then there's the very wonderful MPhil at the University of South Wales, which is very different from most MAs. And whatever you're studying, you might find that my post about Academic Writing is useful. But whether you're an MPhil... Read more →


Guest Post by Jenn Ashworth: Making the Rules: Physics and Fell

One of the questions I suggest asking your novel is "Who is telling this story?" And the next is, "Where are they standing, relative to the events they're telling?". So I was excited to discover that Jenn Ashworth was building her new novel, Fell, on one of the most interesting - and fruitful - answers to that question that I've yet come across. I was lucky enough, a while back, to have a tiny role in her working-out of the considerable writerly challenges it posed, and when I read the book a few weeks ago I just loved it (its... 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 →


The Fiction Editor's Pharmacopoeia; diagnosing symptoms & treating the disease

The Society for Editors and Proof-readers is and does exactly what it says on the tin (and if you're thinking of self-publishing, it would be a very good place to start looking for proper professional help.) So I was delighted to be asked to speak to their Editing Fiction conference, exploring and explaining the decisions that we writers make, so that in tackling writing where the decisions aren't producing a good result, writers and editors can have a common language. As I was discussing in my post about giving feedback, it's one thing to recognise a problematic symptom: over-writing, say,... Read more →