Tuesday, 30 June 2009

and the beat goes on...

Posted by Sarah Vine.

I knew something wasn't quite right with Michael Jackson when I heard that he and Lisa Marie Presley went on honeymoon to DISNEYLAND PARIS.

I went to Disneyland last year. What struck me most about the place (apart from the incessant piped music, the exhorbitant cost of everything and the never-ending queues) was the amount of couples who were there WITHOUT CHILDREN. That's right. On their own. For "fun". Grown men and women, apparently perfectly normal and not displaying any obvious signs of mental illness, who appeared to think that holding hands while traipsing around a moused-theme amusement park in the rain was an acceptable adult activity. Not, say, visiting the Louvre, or dining beneath the chandeliers at the Plaza Athenee (only marginally less expensive than the buffet at the Disneyland hotel), or gazing into each others eyes over strong coffee and croissants.

I think that may explain his huge fan base. That, and the fact that Don't Stop Til You Get Enough is a FABULOUS tune. Oh go on, it is. Admit it. You can't fight the funk, baby.

Blame it on the Boogie; or, in which I have more questions than answers

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A small note on the text.

I have hesitated for two days over whether to put up this post. It is going to make some of my loyal readers very cross, because I know they are Michael Jackson fans. I hate the idea of trampling over tender feelings. There is a real danger that I am being too judgemental and unforgiving, or just plain wrong. This dilemma has made me ponder what blogs themselves are for. Who cares what I think? Perhaps I am falling into the blogger’s trap, the accusation of the mainstream media that the whole thing is merely an exercise in self-indulgence. I love the community aspect of blogging: I like it when we are all agreeing and getting along and laughing at the same jokes. The people pleasing part of me, which years of therapy could never quite erase, says I should just trash the whole thing and write a snappy little jingle of a post about how the sun is shining and the swallows are swooping past my window and a girl with a pretty voice is singing a cover of Joan of Arc, which is making me smile. The cussed part of me says: publish and be damned. The rational part of me says: your readers are grown ups, they can take a difference of opinion once in a while. For whatever reason, I am going to take the risk. If the comment board goes up in smoke, I have only myself to blame.

So, here goes:

In the summer that Thriller came out, I was deep in the Nievre on a French exchange with my friend Ally, listening to Leonard Cohen. The summer before I was in the West Indies, where my first and nastiest stepfather had taken my mother to live, and I spent two months listening to nothing but Bob Marley, in homage at first to my surroundings, in sheer awe and wonder, in the end, at his raging brilliance. The summer after that was the season of two songs only: Nineteenth Nervous Breakdown by the Stones, and Heroes by David Bowie. That was the soundtrack of my teenage years.

Through the long French summer of 1982, I ate pork rillettes for the first time, developed impossible crushes on a Portuguese and an Englishman, both equally dark and thrilling and out of reach, and was taught to do le roc by a wry Scot called Archie who made me laugh so much I could not see straight. I heard the heartbreaking sound of Fado, played on four guitars under a black sky littered with stars, and was not as kind as I should have been to the third exchange student, an upright serious boy called Lancelot, who wore tweed jackets and did not listen to any popular music at all. (I hope now that he is a brilliant professor of history or an expert on moral philosophy, and I hope that my memories of teasing him are overblown, and if I ever had any advice to give to the Young People it would be: never be mean to the geeks, because if you stop to listen, they are always more interesting than the cool kids, and will probably go on to conquer the world.)

In an old stable where we played ping-pong, its brick floor and whitewashed walls sheltering us from the scorching heat of the day, Ally and I waged a fierce battle over the turntable. She wanted Thriller, all full volume, all the time, and each moment she was not looking I rushed over and put on Songs of Love and Hate, or Songs from A Room, or The Songs of Leonard Cohen. Back and forth we went, from Billie Jean to So Long, Marianne. It was a war of attrition, and I don’t think either of us ever won. So even in when he was in his pomp, I never got Michael Jackson. As I grew older, he lived in the margins of my consciousness: I was dimly aware of the increasing freakishness, the mutilating plastic surgery, the allegations of child abuse, the odd collection of friends (Elizabeth Taylor, Uri Geller, Deepak Chopra), the massive debts, the bizarre way he created his children, the strange television interviews, the rehab visits, the court cases, the Jarvis Cocker stage invasion. I assumed that he had gone way past the tipping point, and was never again to be taken seriously.

And then he suffered a fatal coronary. Overnight, he was washed clean; people cried in the streets, Twitter crashed, spontaneous tributes were performed as crowds moondanced in public places. The King of Pop was gone; it was the day the music died. I felt: nothing. I read myself a narrative, because all humans need one of those. A sad man, who never really had a shot at life, died at a young age, before his time. Surely there is a sorrow in that? I, with my nice bleeding liberal heart should feel it, even from a distance. Fame, John Updike once said, is a mask that eats the face. Jackson’s face was almost literally consumed by fame, until there was barely anything recognisable left; he was a fable, a cautionary tale, a walking tragedy, right there up on the stage. I should feel: something.

I did, in the end, feel something. I felt a bafflement that came close to anger. It seemed inexplicable to me that people I liked, writers I admired, clever columnists I loved to read, were bending in homage to a man who frankly admitted to welcoming young boys into his bed. All our idols are flawed. The three writers I most worship, Scott Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Mrs Woolf, were a drunk, a misogynist and a snob. The singing voice I perhaps love most of all came out of Frank Sinatra, who consorted with mobsters and behaved unspeakably to his wives. But there was something about a powerful, famous man spending many nights with starstruck adolescents that I could not get past.

I called my friend Paul. He is the one I call when I have a question to which I do not know the answer. ‘Yes,’ he said, picking up on the third ring. We have the kind of friendship which goes so deep that even when we have not spoken for weeks there is no hello-how-are-you small talk when either of us answers the telephone. ‘Why is it,’ I said loudly, for I had grown intemperate, ‘that the entire world is in mourning for a man accused of fiddling with little boys?’ Slight pause. ‘I’ll take you off speakerphone,’ Paul said.

Later, he called me back, and we talked it over. Paul can be stern and rational when it is called for. He spoke of forgiving our heroes, and loving the music, and the crucible moment of a black artist going mainstream and what that meant. I spoke of Sam Cooke, and Al Green, and Etta James, and Nina Simone, and Stevie Wonder, and Ben E King, all of whom I thought wrote and sang greater songs than Jackson ever dreamed of. ‘But he was pop,’ said Paul. ‘Maybe you just don’t like pop.’ I stopped and thought, determined to be fair. I always like to be fair. ‘No,’ I said, ‘I love pop. I just don’t think he wrote great pop. It sounded to me commercial and overproduced. I think Jarvis Cocker did perfect pop, and Ray Davies with The Kinks, and Neil Hannon with The Divine Comedy, and all the boys in Blur, and I adored those great songs from the sixties that went build me up build me up buttercup or the concrete and the clay beneath my feet begin to crumble. If you stretched your definition a bit, you could even say The Ramones were pop. And I loved them like brothers.’

The conversation started to wind down. In a final burst of confusion, I said: ‘And that whole thing about him being a hero for the black community, how does that count for anything when he spent his life trying to look white? How does that work?’ There was another pause. Paul said: ‘I don’t think it’s as simple as that.’

So I got no answers, even from one of the men I most trust to give them to me. I have no answers now, only questions, than run around in my head like characters in a film on fast forward. I think it is curious the things that people forgive, and to whom they offer their forgiveness. Our members of parliament, who earn a tenth the amount in a year what Jackson could pull in from one concert, are excoriated and hounded through the market place for claiming bath plugs and scatter cushions on expenses. There is no absolution for them. They are booed on live television; they are all the same, only in it for what they can get. If one of them, however hardworking and untainted by expense scandal and dedicated to the democratic process, had admitted, as Jackson did, that he thought it a charming thing to share his bed with a thirteen year old boy, even if no impropriety was ever proved, just imagine the headlines in the Daily Mail, picture the paedo frenzy in The News of the World. The career would be over, all moral authority gone, any obituary would have only one lead headline. Many of those elected representatives are now packing it in, even though they have never taken a single Demerol, or told a young fellow that wine was good for him because Jesus drank it, or dangled a small baby over the balcony of a German hotel room. The public prosecutors who tried desperately to bring charges against Jackson, who believed the frightening stories that were told to them by the young children who slept at Neverland, who could never quite build a case that a jury would buy, told interviewers, over and over again, ‘He could get away with it because he was Michael Jackson.’ They did not mean that he got away with it because he was a brilliant dancer or a dazzling showman or a gifted songwriter; they meant: it was the fame and the money and the power. Comparing pop stars with MPs might be a case of apples and oranges, but it seems strange to me that Jackson is held to such a radically different standard than any other adult male, and I am not quite certain that I understand why.

I do have a fatal tendency to hero worship, which means I have to distinguish between the work and the person. I have written before about how it might be too much to expect a writer of genius to be also a great human being. I don’t so much forgive TS for his treatment of his wife, or F Scott for his petulant drunken outbursts, or Mrs Parker for her sottish episodes of slatternly self-pity, as try to read the work without remembering all that. I do think there are degrees of egregiousness. All rock stars are expected to do junk and sleep with hookers and do the diva jive; their public almost demands it. What would Keith Richards be without the smack, or Janis Joplin without the nights in the Chelsea Hotel, or Sid without Nancy? When Roger Daltry took up fly fishing, that was much harder for The Who fans to take than stories of debauchery and throwing television sets out of windows.

I find a slight tinge of the madness of crowds in this revisionist mourning. Maureen Orth, who wrote long and thoughtful articles about Jackson in Vanity Fair, has been called ‘evil’ because she went on television and described him as a failed human being. She covered all the accusations from the young boys who were interviewed by psychologists and judged plausible, whose stories all ran along identical lines. She reported on the $25 million paid to Jordie Chandler and the enduring belief in Jackson’s guilt of Tom Sneddon, the district attorney who tried the 2005 case. Despite her forensic reporting, we shall never know the whole truth. There is the chance that all of those children were making it up, for attention, because their parents were bent on extortion, because Michael Jackson was Michael Jackson, and he was naive enough to say, on national television, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with a grown man sharing a bed with a young boy. It was natural, he said, and beautiful. There is the possibility that he was more victim than victimiser.

I can’t tell if I loved Michael Jackson’s music more I would give him more latitude. I did not get him as a person, and I did not get him as a musician. This sad, freakish man makes me now feel like a freak myself, because I cannot join in this public mourning, this great uncritical outpouring of grief, this we shall not see his like again valediction, because I am too haunted by the faltering memory of those young boys, and the stories they told.

Friday, 26 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day Five

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

And so, at last, the end is near....

A small diversion on tennis:

My theory on putting in the hard work of writing is to form good habits, familiar connections in the brain. When I think of what writers do, my first answer is write. Try to write something every day, even if it is not much good; the words must go onto the page. After that – writers pay attention, question everything, challenge their own assumptions, take nothing for granted, love and think about language. There are the other habits I have spoken of that make your writing better: using simple, clean language; cutting away the thickets of over-description; starting in the middle of a scene; listening for the rhythms of your sentences; endlessly asking What If?; trusting your own voice. And, of course: rewrite, rewrite, rewrite. The more you do these things, the more they will become second nature: the paradox is, the more you think about them, the less, in the end, you will have to think about them. They will become instinctive. This is what I mean by the writing practice building your writing muscles.

Watching Andy Murray play tennis yesterday, I noticed that he made it look, as one commentator remarked, effortless. What he was doing, up there at the very top level of the game, in fact took a remarkable amount of skill. A perfect backhand slice did not come to him by magic. He not only practises for hours every day, but he has spent the last two years working incredibly hard on his physical fitness. He is naturally slight, but he now has legs with muscles like ship’s ropes. John McEnroe said an interesting thing I did not know; he said that if you improve your physical game, it makes it easier to work on your mental game. I don’t know anything about tennis, so I had to take a moment to decode that statement. I think it means that if you build up your physical mass, get all the right muscles in place, you can take some of that for granted, which frees your mind to think of strategy and your game plan and the accurate and devastating placing of the ball. Muscles actually have memories, so presumably now Murray has to think less about where to put his legs for a certain shot – the muscles are strong, and remember. This may be why his mind is liberated to concentrate on the lightness of touch and the swinging angles and the deftness of his strokes. I think writing is a little like this. Once you build up your writing muscle, with daily practice, so that the basics of good writing become instinctive to you, your imagination is freer to roam; you can become more inventive and daring in your stories and your prose. You can make it look effortless, like Murray, because, like Murray, you have worked so hard.

McEnroe also said another excellent true thing. He was talking about Murray’s opponent ceding points, letting the ball go by; by contrast, Murray, like a terrier, was chasing down every ball, even the ones he could hardly hope to reach. ‘How many times,’ said McEnroe, did you see Jimmy Connors win because he really wanted it? He just wanted it more.’ I think you, too, have to really want it.

The tragic flaw.

The tragic flaw is often thought to belong to Shakespeare, and the ancient Greeks. I think there is a subliminal belief that it is a rather archaic device. If you use it now, in these rushing modern days, it might seem heavy-handed, too obvious, even clunky. Look, look – there is Achilles, watch his heel. But it’s a good character device, if you use it lightly.

Last year, when I first gave this course, I was uncertain whether to talk about the tragic flaw. As if to reassure me, at the exact same moment the story of Eliot Spitzer broke. He was the governor of New York, an upright crusading man, whom people compared to Eliot Ness, because he was going to clean the state of vice and corruption. He went after prostitution rings and could not be bought. Then he was caught seeing a high class call girl named Kristen at four thousand dollars a pop. It was tragic flaw writ large, almost too classical to be true: the fiery opponent of sleaze, doing sleaze himself on an operatic scale. This week, like another little sign from the writing gods, an almost identical scandal broke. Governor Mark Sandford of South Carolina, a staunch Republican family values man, who wore his religion and morality on every sleeve he owned, went missing for three days. His staff said that they thought he was hiking in the Appalachians, although they could not be sure. On Wednesday, he was found getting off a flight from Buenos Aires, where it turned out that he kept a mistress. He was one of the loudest voices yelling for the impeachment of Bill Clinton after the Lewinsky affair; he is vociferous in his opposition to gay marriage because he believes in the sanctity of the institution. He was the Right’s brightest hope for the presidential race of 2012. Now his career, his reputation and his morals lie in ruins at his feet.

Of course, just because the tragic flaw is flashed across our television screens on the nightly news does not mean that you can throw it about at will in your work. The curious thing about fiction is that it must make sense in a way life often does not – an editor might ask you to tone a Spitzer or a Sandford character down, had you created them in a novel or short story. The editor might say: I just don’t believe it. And you cry: but it is true, I read it in the newspaper. And the editor says: it might be true, but it does not feel true. This is the fine line between life and invention which you have to walk like a skilled acrobat.

The tragic flaw does bring one back to first principles, the big elemental emotions. Othello was brought down by jealousy, Macbeth by ambition. Hamlet’s tragic flaw is usually seen as indecision, although I think it is more subtle than that. I think he was brought down by his isolation, his essentially solitary nature; he lived in his head, where everything got tangled up and became impossible to resolve except by bloody action. If you think about it, he was surrounded by people who loved him: Ophelia, the players, the lovely Horatio, the best friend a man ever had. But he would not tell them of his darkest fears, and so could find no help, and this thoughtful, hesitant boy ended up acting on enraged impulse, which is how he killed the good old man behind the arras. Think of the first scene, where he tells the night-watchmen that they must tell no one of what they have seen this night. That to me is the essence of his tragedy. Of course if he had sat down and talked it all out, and come to a moderate conclusion, which is that Claudius should be proven guilty and quietly arrested or sent into exile, there would be no play, as Shakespeare well knew.

Which brings us onto -


You will be told, endlessly, that drama is conflict. This is true, but can be confusing and misleading, because conflict is such an external active word. You think automatically of arguing and shouting and fisticuffs. But the most interesting conflict is internal, and that is the one we all know well from our daily lives. Internal conflict is not always a matter of life and death. It can be of the most mundane quotidian variety: I know I must go for a walk, because I need to exercise and get out in the fresh air and I shall feel better afterwards. But it is cold and gloomy outside, and I am doing something more interesting inside, and like a child, I wail, in my head: I don’t want to go out, I want to say here in the warm. And the adult rational voice says: But you must go, you will be thankful for it later, you know it will do you good. And the childish voice gets crosser and crosser: why must I, I can’t be bothered, I don’t want to be done good to (the child often becomes ungrammatical at this point, as you can see). And by the time you have had this internal fight, you are so exhausted that you have no energy for walking, and when you do finally drag yourself out, because you know you must, you are in a state of sullen apathy and the walk is ruined before it is begun.

Internal conflict is made up of a hundred half-remembered voices that you have imprinted on your mind, from your childhood, from your family, from the culture itself. You are probably all experiencing it now. You have bravely made the decision that you want to write; you know this, somewhere in the pure untouched part of you, in your deep heart. But the voices are saying: You can’t be a writer, because you do not have the right background, you did not go to the right university, you were told to be seen and not heard, you are not clever enough, interesting enough, wild enough; you do not live on absinthe and cigarettes and haunt the Left Bank as writers classically have. Or: you have more important things to do, practical things – you may not chase your dream, because you have a house to run, or a business to tend, or a family to look after. You must do real things in the real world, not sit about dreaming up stories in your head which no one might ever read.

So think up an internal conflict for your characters. Think of what you want them to achieve, what their most precious goal is, and then give them an internal bar, and think how they might jump it. The conflict, however, should not stay internal, otherwise you just have a character who sits about pondering her dilemma and having mad arguments in her own head, which is dull for the reader, and for you too. You need to take the internal dilemma out for a spin and show how it manifests itself in the external world. This can take the form of acts of folly or self-sabotage or sudden rage or impulse. Once you know the internal dilemma, you can find vivid ways for it to come out. Often you don’t need to plan these: you find that once you know the character well enough, they will naturally occur. Yes, you say, of course that is just what she would do now.

A quick note on short versus long fiction.

The short story can feel an easier place to start than a long old novel. In some ways, for a beginning writer, this is true. You only have ten or twenty terrifying blank pages to fill. But to write a really good short story takes tremendous skill. There is a delicacy of touch required in short fiction, and, at the very same time, a huge concentration of energy. You do not have room to muse and explicate and set the scene; you have to create an entire world with very few words. You must bring your characters to life in two lines. Also, really satisfying short stories tend to have a little twist to them – think of Saki, Dorothy Parker, Maugham – and inventing a satisfying twist in the tail is fiendishly difficult. I can’t speak to it with any great authority, since I have never really done short fiction, so my best advice is – if that is what you yearn for, just read and read and read the best, and see how they do it. I recommend Helen Simpson, Lorrie Moore, and Chekhov, obviously, as well as the three I have already mentioned.

In many ways, the novel is an easier prospect. You have so much more room to murder and create. But the sheer length of the task can be daunting. A good thing to remember is the bite by bite idea – how does a mouse eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It is easy to get overwhelmed by starting out on a novel – oh my God, 90000 words, how CAN I? Remember what EL Doctorow said – when you are driving at night, you can only see the stretch of road illuminated in front of your headlights. Think of writing a novel like that; concentrate on the stretch of dark road lit up right in front of you. It’s just today’s 500 words.

It really helps to get into a rhythm of 500 or a thousand words a day – if you can do three to five thousand words a week, there is your first draft in a few months. They don’t have to be perfect words, reaffirm your permission to do a messy first draft, know you can go back and fix everything. Sometimes, if I get stuck on a scene, I just sketch out what I want to be there, and keep moving forward, knowing I can go back and flesh it out in the second draft. Getting your words done, even if they are not the dazzling words of which you dream, is tremendously reassuring – you watch the count tick up at the bottom of your screen, you see the pile of paper grow. A sense of momentum builds, and you know you are getting somewhere.

A few final random thoughts.

Use idioms, figures of speech, metaphors, similes. ‘Read till your eyes bleed’ (advice I have been giving my pupils all week) is stronger than ‘read a lot’. ‘Radio Four, like a beautiful woman with a bunion, has its flaws’ is more vivid and memorable than ‘Radio Four is flawed’. But go carefully. You do not want to strain for effect, or clot up your writing with too much richness. Check that you are not showing off. Let your metaphors and similes ring true – did he really have the face of a gnarled old tree stump? Really? There are moments when it is as well to remember crazy old Gertrude Stein: a rose is a rose is a rose. Not everything is like something. Sometimes things are just what they are.

A good writer’s trick: Hemingway always stopped writing each day at a point when he knew what came next. That way he could start again in the morning knowing where he was going.

Don’t fondly imagine that the deathless thought you had just before going to sleep will miraculously appear in your mind the next day. It will be lost and you will curse yourself. Keep a notebook by the bed, by the stove, next to the sofa, in your pocket, in your handbag. Sometimes you go back and read your thought and realise it was not deathless at all, but deathly dull; that’s fine, at least you did not lose it. Get into the habit of carrying your notebook with you everywhere. Alan Bennett fills his with snippets of overheard conversations. I use the Moleskine, because it is small, tough, aesthetically pleasing, and Bruce Chatwin favoured it, which for some reason makes me very happy.

I have talked of the universal emotions: love, hate, fear, jealousy, joy. Everything comes back to those. But the secondary emotions are interesting too: indifference, like, grumpiness. If it is all about love and hate, then the medicine may prove too strong.

Think about the stories that everyone loves – and this applies to fiction and non-fiction – the classic stories – thwarted love, high jeopardy, both physical and emotional, the little guy triumphing against the odds. Nature against man, man against man, and now, sometimes, technology against man. There are the ambition stories, and the how to achieve your dream stories. There are the how to put your broken heart back together stories, and the heroism stories, and the quiet stoical stories – the odds do not have to be unimaginable, but there must be odds.

However flawed and complex your hero or heroine, you must be rooting for them to win. They might not win, the ending might not be happy, but you must want it, and then the readers will too.

You can steal from famous stories – Shakespeare did. Take the skeleton of a classic story you love, and make it your own. TS said that bad writers plagiarise and good writers steal. You can sometimes be shameless.

A further note on motivations. People do things for such strange reasons. People kill for money. MONEY. We all take that for granted because we’ve heard it on a million crime shows and read it a hundred times in the actual paper. But if you get to thinking about it, it is a fabulously strange thing to do. You would take a human life so that - what? You can go shopping? Have a nice holiday? Get a diamond or a boat? You trangress the ultimate taboo for a bit more cash? A man was convicted of last year of killing his wife so he could get her life insurance. It was around £300,000. That’s a just a nicer car and a couple of good suits and a better pension. For this, he murdered, with thought and care, the women he had sworn to love and cherish.
People kill for pride: they call these honour killings, which have nothing of honour about them.
People marry because they are afraid of being alone.
I once fell entirely in love with a man because he wore velvet suits and smelt of Vetiver.
In some ways, there is nothing stranger in the world than human motivations.

Never forget the value of understatement: it’s the great British virtue. Use it.

Be aware of time: a limited time frame can be a very useful way of keeping a story sharp. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a race against time, although that has its own high drama. But use time.

You need to be strict with your friends and family. They may think of your writing as a joke or a hobby or just a way of passing time. Some of my friends, even now, do not think I have a proper job. Sometimes I don’t think I have a proper job. But your writing is important to you, and you must make the space for it. People think they can interrupt you at any time, because you are only writing, and your train of thought is something that can be picked up and put down at will. You need concerted thinking, dreaming, imagining, writing time and you may be quite ruthless about taking it. I actually turn the telephone off; everyone gets furious with me, because they believe they should be able to reach me at any time, at their instant whim. Well, my whim is that I need SILENCE. Or sometimes Mozart on very loud, which can work very well on a brain-filled-with-mud day.

The movie stratagem - This is something that I did not learn from any manual or great writing quote, but made up my very own self. If I am having trouble writing a scene, I run it through my head visually, as if I am watching a film. Then I simply write down what I have watched. It is an excellent device to work your way through a bit of block, even if I do say so myself. And if your writing has gone a little flat, it is a good way of making it alive and vivid and immediate again.

I think a certain knowledge of psychology is vital. We all want to know why human beings do the things they do. Sometimes there is no definitive answer; but you may make more educated guesses if you have a grounding in psychology. When you observe real people and watch what they do, you find it easier to discern their real motives, their hidden fears, their secret shames. When you create characters of your own, you can give their actions, however random, an underlying coherence. It doesn’t have to be as obvious as – he was beaten by his father every day until he bled, so he just had to go and invade Russia. But the scars and memories and wrong constructions that we develop when we are six can have powerful and unexpected consequences when we are thirty-six. Also, it is an absolutely fascinating field of study. I recommend anything by the great Dorothy Rowe, who is wise and readable, and Robert A Johnson, who writes very short, accessible books based on the central ideas of Jung. Adler is an easy read; Jung himself, sadly, is pretty tough going even though I love his ideas.

I have talked a lot of conquering your fears. Conversely, be careful of becoming too confident. You can get all cocky and swaggery and start thinking perhaps you really are Evelyn Waugh, and then you will become careless and even bombastic in your writing and the whole thing will go to hell. That’s why the balance between fear and confidence is vital.

I love picking up fragments. Yesterday when I was leaving the house, I heard a man say on the radio: I’m not against women per se. What could he mean? It has been running around in my head ever since. I may never use it, but I am glad I wrote it down.

Today’s writing exercise:

Allow yourself ten minutes this time. Rather than doing the auto-writing I have recommended with these exercises so far, allow yourself to pause and think and search for a word if you wish. Again, it can be anything – a list, an impression, a picture that comes into your head, a series of snapshots, one thought, amplified. Most important: trust what comes and go with it. And what I want you to write about is: This Week.

Thank you and Good Night.

In my class this week, we uncovered a garden of delights. My pupils arrived with little idea of what to expect. I think it was an act of courage and faith on their part. They started off uncertain, in trepidation. Each day, they grew in confidence, so that by the last writing exercise they produced pieces of beauty and accomplishment and truth, and made me exclaim out loud in delight. I asked a lot of them – it is very hard work to take in so many unfamiliar ideas and receive so much information in such a short space of time. They put up kindly with my tendency to shoot off on tangents, my occasional incoherence, and my moments of faint didacticism. And at the end of it all, they gave me a glorious orchid, which sits on my desk now as I write. I salute them all.

To all my online readers who have patiently followed these long and not very finely written posts – I offer you my gratitude. I hope that you have found something of use to you here. Have faith in your one true voice, and keep your fingers moving. You will delight and surprise yourselves. I wish you all joy and success in your writing.

Thursday, 25 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day Four

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Again, my darlings, apologies for length. I really do thank all of you who are so doggedly sticking with it. Apologies too for the sometimes rough and occasionally error-pocked nature of these writings. They were not written to be read, but as lesson plans, prompts for me to start talking to my class. I love giving these classes, but come home utterly drained, and so when I edit for the blog, I only have half a brain with which to do it. But having decided to do this online experiment, I feel very strongly that I want to stick with it, and post every day. So it is a warts and all kind of deal.


I want to talk about memory because I think it plays such a crucial role in writing. I have spoken of how we get stories and characters going – this asking of the endless What ifs? What if that happened, what if she did this, what if he found out that; what if, what if? Writers are always asked where they get their ideas from, as if there is a special idea shop one can order from, or as if some people are simply born with a psychic hotline to The Idea. But everyone has ideas, it’s just a question of having confidence in them. The temptation is to think: that’s not interesting enough, or thrilling enough, or dramatic enough. But all human life holds drama, because of the gap between what we want and what we have – it is the striving to bridge that gap that leads to drama and conflict, and even sometimes events, dear boy, events. And then there is the gap between what we really are and what we feel we should be, the endless fight against the constraints of society or social mores or what your mother told you. Drama does not always have to be a huge production, with bodies strewn all over the stage in the last act. It can be quiet and contained and internal. Just because it is small does not mean it lacks potency.

Memory is often the catalyst for an idea, not in a literal sense – I shall just write this down and it will be a story – but in the sense that it sets off a chain of thought, a series of questions, an entire bundle of unexpected associations. Let a memory carry you in any direction, and you may be amazed at where you end up.

The nature of memory.

Memory is incredibly important in writing because our recollections of things are how we order and shape and categorise the world, how we learn about people and ourselves. It is the writer’s treasure chest, the dressing up box that we may all rummage through.

Whether used in fiction or non-fiction, your memories can get trashed and sullied by those around you, even the most well-meaning. It was not like that, is often what the families of writers say, in amazement, in indignation, in jealous rage. But it was like that for you. The memories are yours, and you may paint them as you wish. They might not be strictly accurate, but they are true in the sense that they express a truth for you. So don’t be afraid of memory, so that you get tangled in it, trapped by trying to recall the exact literal facts in the precise order they happened; an impressionistic sense can be more useful.

Also, I think you can play fast and loose in the way you use your memory bank. You can mine it, like someone digging for emeralds – as the starting point for a story, or the pivotal moment in a character’s life, or the perfect illustration for when you are stretching to express a human truth. You can also throw in the less precious stones – minute shots of even quite mundane memory can bring a piece of writing alive. I have a memory of a girl from my university who used to stride across the quad in a bright red floor length coat. I took the coat and gave it to a character in one of my earlier novels: she was nothing like the real person who wore the coat, but it had stuck in my mind, like a nail snagging on a piece of material, and it brought my character into focus for me. The red coat also became emblematic of something, some kind of boldness, and also, oddly, a sense of doom: there was too much vivid life in what that coat represented for it to burn for very long. Sure enough, the character threw herself off the Clifton Suspension Bridge. I’m not saying that it was the coat that did it, but I think it suggested it.

You can give something funny or quirky you remember about your sister to a character who has nothing to do with your sister. You can give it to a man. Memories cross time and place and gender. All you have for your writing is everything you know, so throw it all into the mix. You might want to be a little careful here. Every time I start a book, I think: I must put every single thing I know about life and love and the whole damn thing into this one book, and of course that is not possible, and I am haunted by a dark sense of failure: I could not get it all in. Here is the reality check: you can’t use it all, nor should you. You must have something left for the next book.

Concentrate on the heart of the memory – all the details are not important. It could be one word or phrase, or one colour, or the way the weather was that day. Try to pull all the senses out of it: what was it you smelt, felt with your hands, what could you hear? And then, take it further – what emotions were in you on that day, twenty years ago, or last week, or yesterday, and, possibly more interestingly, what emotions does it stir in you now?

Readers, human beings, love connections – think how often you will say, in conversation: Oh, it reminds me of that time...Think of the curious pleasure of being reminded, of being magically transported back to your earlier self. The past and the present suddenly mesh, for a moment there is synchronicity. Long flashbacks are dangerous in books, even in the most masterly hands, but quick snapshots of memory can be vivid, thematic, even create a sense of mystery and suspense. Give your characters memories of their very own: we are the sum of all our pasts.

A useful exercise, particularly if you are feeling blocked and uninspired, is to get yourself into the dreaming state, where you are sitting very still and allowing your mind to go slack, and then see if you can find a memory, any one, from any time of your life. Write it down, quickly, as a broad impression, and then see where it leads you. Keep on writing, for five minutes, ten, as long as you want. Question the memory, play around with it, poke it with a stick; see what it stirs in you, or makes you think about the world, the story you are writing, the character you have just invented. I guarantee that you will end up somewhere you did not expect. Remember, as with all these exercises, that you do not have to show this to anyone. No one will ever know. It is yours, and it remains between you and the page. This gives you the absolute liberty to say whatever the hell you want, even if it comes out as gibberish, and that is quite a rare liberty in life.

Also, I love to use other people’s memories. Reading diaries and memoirs from a time not your own can kick start the imagination, and give both the fascinating contrast between eras and also the comforting feeling that human beings do not change so very much. We all want to live good lives, to love and be loved well, to think that perhaps our time here had some small significance. Those are the universals. But the social mores and cultural imperatives and ways of dress (and address) change radically, and that is another gold mine of inspiration. I like to think about how far we’ve come and yet how short a distance human progress travels.

The Memoir.

I think the memoir is ultimately more satisfying than the straightforward autobiography. The autobiography is linear, madly inclusive – as a reader, quite often I am impatient, wanting to skip to the good parts. My own quirk is that I find it dull and tiring to read about people’s childhoods. I want them in the thick of the action, with their complicated adult minds already working, freighted with the weight of their own experience and history. This is why I like memoirs like Norman Lewis on his year in Naples in 1944. May Sarton, the American novelist, wrote a lovely memoir about one year of her life, when she was quite old, in a big house in New England, I think, it might have been Connecticut. She watched the seasons, thought about her own life, her own writing, the people she had loved, and yet it was so true and honest and beautifully written that it did not come out as solipsistic at all. It was about all thinking, feeling people, actual and three dimensional on the page. Nothing much happened: the daffodils bloomed, the summer winds blew, the snows came, but Sarton was so present in every moment that it was entirely gripping. When I put it down I felt bereft. I wanted to write to her and thank her for it, but she was dead, so I could not, and I was cross about that.

So you can anchor your memoir in a pivotal year, but you don’t have be confined to that year. It is a useful frame, not a cage. That is your focus, that is the locus of your memories, but you will find that you can bring in other times in your life, people who were not there that year, experiences that came before. In the manner of word association, you will find that you will go off in unexpected directions and thrilling tangents. But to choose a finite amount of time gives the book a good solid pivot for you to turn about.

I think it is a lovely form, and I think it is also a gift to the reader, if I can say that without expiring from pretention. The danger in the rush of modern life is forgetting: the new generations forget about the war, or rationing, or the days when divorcees were not allowed into the royal enclosure at Ascot. They forget, or never knew, that women once never went out without a pair of gloves. These are small telling details that make up the weft of the last century. By writing down your memories of an earlier time you are handing on perspective to the ones who are younger than you. I used to dread it when my grandmother started a sentence: In my day. Now I wish I had listened more closely. I want, passionately, to understand what her day was really like. She was born in 1910, and one of her earliest memories is watching Dublin burn during the battle for the Post Office. She was taken to a high window, about three miles outside the city, where she lived, and she watched the fires light up the sky. It’s a six year old girl’s view on a famous historical event. We all know the history of that time, but that small human detail of a little girl in her nightdress, not really knowing what it was she was watching, being taken to see it as if it were a night at the theatre, gives it a resonance, a different point of view, that we do not get from the history books.

Today's Five Minute Exercise.

Write a memory. You can do it any way you wish – as a small narrative, as a list of impressions, as a physical snapshot. You can take one detail of it and describe how it makes you feel now or how it made you feel then. Follow it anywhere it leads you.

Beginnings and Endings:

I think that for a lot of the time you can please yourself, with your writing, and you should please yourself, because, as we have seen, this is the most likely way that you will please others. But beginnings and endings are the two places where you really do have to think about giving the punters what they want. It is the one place that I think you should directly consider your readers and the effect you are having on them. Most of the time, you should actively not think this, because if you are striving for effect you will lose your true voice and your authenticity and your story will wither on the page. I think about readers in a general sense, when I put together my philosophy of writing. I think: I am having the temerity to ask people I do not know, with short lives, to give me hours of their time. Time is beyond price. The bargain I strike with them is: if you give me your time, I will damn well give you the very best piece of writing I can achieve. This is why I do eight or nine or ten drafts of a book (well, that, and the slightly obsessive compulsive side of my nature, which will never quite be denied). This is why I write every day, and why I lashed myself to progress from the awful, derivative, affected sentences of my first novel to the reasonably presentable prose that I can achieve today.

This did not happen by accident. I was not born to a literary family, or with any cosmic literary gift. I started to write because I loved to read, and because I found I adored creating imagined worlds, and because I thought it would be a piece of piss to write a bestseller and rescue my mother from penury (I was fifteen at the time). My first book was so bad that Private Eye called me a ‘moronic toff’. ‘Try, fail,’ said Samuel Beckett. Try again, Fail Better.’. This speaks to my cussed streak. So I got all the books about how to write, and I watched every television programme about writers, and I listened to every radio interview a writer I admired ever gave, and I went back again and again to Gatsby and thought: How in hell does drunken old F Scott do that? I wrote every day, practising my scales, my arpeggios; I paid attention; I took notes. Little by little, creaking step by creaking step, I got better. It was not just for my own satisfaction. I think if you are asking someone to pay ten of their hard-earned pounds for something you have written, you owe them your very best.

Away from this general sense of the debt of honour you owe your readership, I think the rule is not to think of an audience when you write. It can be horribly constricting and counter-productive. Beginnings and endings are different; then you should hold the reader in the very front of your mind. This is because of the hard fact that the first line is what people read when they are browsing around in the bookshop wondering whether to give up their recession-hit cash for your scribblings. If you do not grab them by the scruff of the neck, shake them about a bit, and give them a big fat literary kiss on the mouth, they will bugger off and buy something by Alain de Botton instead. If you start thinking of your readers in the middle of the book, the danger is that you start breaking into metaphorical tap dances, like an eight year old after too much sugar. But the first line is the one place when you want to be acutely aware of the effect you are having. A socking, whacking doozy of a first line is worth staying up at night to achieve.

In the same way, with your ending, you want to send the readers away satisfied. They are quite likely to carry that last line with them. With any luck, you will leave them with a warm, enchanted feeling of promises fulfilled and everyone getting their just deserts; you may leave them with a shock or a dose of melancholy or a sense of thoughts provoked. There is of course the pure artistic satisfaction of achieving a fine ending, pulling all the threads together, sounding a pleasing echo of the thing you started with, all those pages ago. (I owe this sense of coming back to your beginning in your end to my brilliant, stern teacher Mr Woodhouse, who taught me how to write history essays when I was sixteen, and I wish I knew where he was now so I could thank him for it.) But on a ruthless, mercantile note, if you send the readers away with a party bag, they are more likely to buy your next book.

To illustrate the point, here are a few of my favourite first and last lines. We discussed them at some length in class today, but here I am only going to say: notice how much power can be generated by very simple words. All of these lines use the most basic language: the strong, direct, clear words that a child could understand. There are no fancy pants or backflips; no look at me, Ma, no hands. I keep telling my pupils: don’t be afraid of plain language. Clarity and brevity are your friends. Being literary does not mean that you must show off about how many long, abstruse words you know.

First lines:

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.
-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice.

In a village of La Mancha the name of which have no desire to recall, there lived not so long ago one of those gentlemen who always have a lance in the rack, an ancient buckler, a skinny nag, and a greyhound for the chase.
- Cervantes (Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra), Don Quixote

Midway in our life's journey, I went astray from the straight road and woke to find myself alone in a dark wood.
- Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy, Inferno

James Bond, with two double bourbons inside him, sat in the final departure lounge of Miami Airport and thought about life and death.
- Ian Fleming, Goldfinger

It was a queer, sultry summer, the summer they electrocuted the Rosenbergs, and I didn't know what I was doing in New York.
- Sylvia Plath, The Bell Jar

This is the saddest story I have ever heard.
Ford Maddox Ford, The Good Soldier.
(I did tell my pupils: this kind of first line is a high-risk strategy. If you are going to make such a bold statement, you’d better have the goods to back it up. Otherwise the dashed expectations will take all day to scrape off the floor.)

Mrs Dalloway said that she would buy the flowers herself.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway

Last lines:

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby.

Everything had gone right with me since he had died, but how I wished there existed someone to whom I could say I was sorry.
Graham Greene, The Quiet American

After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.
Hemingway, For Whom the Bell Tolls.

We shall never be again as we were.
Henry James, Wings of the Dove.

Everything he hated was here.
Philip Roth, Sabbath’s Theatre.

Wednesday, 24 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day Three

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Another hilariously long post. And these are the edited versions. Imagine what my poor pupils are having to put up with - me, talking, for three hours. Adoration and salutations to those of you who are sticking with it.


Allow yourself to do a perfectly awful first draft. This may be the most valuable piece of writing advice in the entire wide world. It is the best way to counter the curse of perfectionism, under which, ironically, so many people who are drawn to writing labour. Hurl the perfectionism genie from your shoulder, shut up those carping voices in your head (‘Call that a sentence?’), and give yourself formal permission to write the most awful load of arse. You will anyway, so you might as well make it official.

Along with all the fears any human, and especially any human writer, carries (what will people think, what will my mother think, who am I to dare mess with the language of Shakespeare and Milton?) there exists a fantasy that what the really good writers do is dance to their desk each morning in an ecstasy of joyful creativity, crack their knuckles, and pour out a perfect sonata of shimmering prose. Here is Hemingway, pithy as ever, on that subject: ‘For every one page of masterpiece, I write ninety pages of shit.’ What sorts the good writers from the amateurs is that the pros go back and do a second draft and a third and a fourth and a fifth. They hack away at the tangle of tired phrases and redundant descriptions and soulless repetitions until the one great page emerges. They cut, they polish, they take their thesaurus down from the shelf and find ten different words for red. (The thesaurus is your best friend in this endeavour, but like all good friends, should not be abused. Sometimes red is just red.)

In the dead of night, the real writers steal to their computer and murder their darlings. It was the great William Goldman who said you must kill your darlings, and even though I worship at his feet, and know he is right, I still find it the hardest writing test. What he meant was – you will sometimes write a really lovely paragraph of poetic prose, or a vivid scene that sings off the page, or create a charming and quirky minor character with whom you fall in love. When you get to the third draft, you realise that these things do not quite belong in this piece of work. They might be lovely in themselves, but they are not pulling their weight. They are not adding to your theme, or pulling the plot forward, or amplifying your character. They must die. I am so squeamish that I cannot bear to kill them completely, so they are sent to a special dead darlings file, where they languish like souls in limbo, reading Dante to pass the time.

A note on characters.

Someone asked in my class today how you keep track of your characters, especially if you are writing a long novel. My answer was: you live with them every day. Think about them when you are in the bath, doing the washing up, walking the dog. Know them like you know your own self. Hemingway (and I know I quote him a lot, but he was so damn good) said that characters should be like icebergs, only one eighth is visible, but you must know the other seven eighths below the surface for them to come alive on the page. In this way you come to know their deep motivations, which are crucial. They might want love or fame or money or revenge, and you must know why, even if you do not spell it out in words of one syllable. As well as their central motivation, you need to know their little quirks – do they hate cheese, have a fear of peaches (do they dare eat a peach?), adore the smell of beeswax? What happened to them when they were six? It helps to keep notes of all this, in a notebook or on your computer or on index cards, but if you are dreaming of them in every spare moment you have, you will come to know them so well that you may find you will not even need to refer to your notes.

One final thought on your characters: know their physical selves. It means that you see them and know them better; they are living things to you. Peggy Ashcroft once said about acting, about finding her way into a character, that she always started off with the walk; she built the character from the feet up. Think of Helen Mirren in The Queen – she expresses everything about that character in the way she walks.


Good dialogue is not a facsimile of how people actually talk. You need to tidy it up. In life, people leave sentences unfinished, race off on tangents, interrupt themselves. On the page, this would look like a big fat mess. Only use ums, ers, you knows, I means to indicate something – hesitancy, shyness. But if you have your characters speaking in long flowing periods, they will sound flat and unreal, or frankly insane. A very few people really do speak in complete sentences, I knew a man once who did it, it was mesmerising to listen to. But most talk in fragments, go off on unrelated diversions, get tangled up in ungrammatical thickets. Some speak in short bursts, some in long, rambling sets of subclauses. It can be instructive to listen to the way people talk on the radio, in shops, in interviews, but don’t be tempted to transcribe it. Use it as an exercise to identify different patterns of speech, see if you can tell something of a person’s character from the way they talk, listen for underlying meanings or lost implications. Then go away and burnish it until it shines.

You should try and differentiate your characters in the way they talk. Give them verbal tics and favourite turns of phrase. If they all sound the same, it is confusing for your readers.

Be aware of the Freudian slip, and the reading between the lines. Sometimes you can learn most about a person from what it is they do not say.

Always use said. This is a golden rule. Never use: she trilled, shrieked, stated, whispered. You may use shouted if you are very good.

Repetition can be good. It can build up rhythms, set up themes, expose a character’s deepest desire. Use it sparingly. It is a strong arrow in your arsenal.

A serious question with a one word answer:

One of my pupils asked today: ‘Should you show your work to anyone else?’. To which I answered, without thought or reflection, and so loudly that everyone looked up in alarm: ‘NO.’.

It is so tempting. Writing is a lonely business, not in the sense of the solitude, but because no one can do it but you. You long for feedback, you yearn for a little praise and encouragement, you hanker for a lovely, chewy literary discussion. I say: DON’T DO IT. Hang tough; you can push on through without a crutch. Writing is hard, I can’t say that enough, not as a warning or to put you off, but as a consolation. If you find it hard, it is because it is hard. You are having the exact correct response.

The danger is that a work in progress is a fabulously fragile thing. All writing, especially for publication, is a profoundly personal thing. You are, if you are doing it right, putting all your hopes and dreams and fears and night terrors into that book. You are putting your ethical code and your deepest beliefs and everything you ever learnt about life. And if someone, well-meaning or not, comes along and tramples all over it with their big clumsy boots (and chances are the boots will be clumsy, because they will never quite understand how you feel about it) it will strangle it in its crib. You will be so hurt and crushed that you will start mixing your metaphors, like I just did. I have made this mistake myself, and almost lost two of my closest friendships over it. Channel Nancy Reagan, and just say NO.

I know that people do find tremendous encouragement and succour from writing groups. They go and share their work in a sealed room of love and safety, because everyone is in it together and knows the tender nature of the writers’ hearts. But even there, I would tread with extreme care. My advice would be only to read aloud work that you have done just for yourself, the kind of writing exercises that you do to train up your writing muscle, personal pieces of prose that are not going into a book. That way, you can take constructive criticism without feeling that the world has ended.

The question that is always asked.

I was not planning to talk about this until Friday, but the question was duly asked, and so I answered it today. Anne Lamott, who wrote a lovely, lyrical book on writing called Bird by Bird, is very funny about The Question That Is Always Asked. In her writing classes, she grows passionate about the magical quality of language, and how stretching for the truth can illuminate our deepest selves, and the dark fears that lurk in the writer’s mind and must be vanquished. She talks of the great writers, and the miraculous effect that literature can have on the mind. She speaks of how you should love writing for its own sake, because all the fame and money and success in the world will not make you whole. She does all this, and makes jokes too, and no matter how wise she is, or funny she is, or insightful she is, she always sees one or two people looking absolutely furious in the front row. The moment she is finished, one of the angry people shoots up their hand and says, ‘Yes, yes, but how do you get an agent?’. Lamott adds wryly, at the end of this little story, that she believes there are an awful lot of people out there who want to be published and not quite so many people who actually want to write.

However, getting published is a serious business and an honourable goal and is not something that you know how to achieve by osmosis. So here is how you do it. When you have written and rewritten and cut and polished and done your cliché edit and your platitude edit and your semi-colon edit (if you are me), and you feel you have the most complete manuscript you can produce, it is time to think about the world, and whether it is ready for you. Golden rule number one: always get an agent first. If you send something straight to a publisher, it will go on a slush pile, where, if you are very lucky indeed, it will be read by a twenty year old temp, if she can put her copy of Grazia down for long enough. If your precious work is presented by a good agent, it will get read by a wise editor who specialises in the kind of thing you write, and probably has lunch with Sebastian Faulkes twice a week.

The best approach is to take your first three chapters and a synopsis and a charming covering letter and send it out to four or five agents. Don’t send the whole book. Agents are busy. They do not have time to wade through five hundred pages of unknown prose, however deathless. Make sure your presentation is well typed and spell-checked to within an inch of its life, with clean inch-wide borders and double-spacing. Go through it five times to make certain there are no apostrophes in the wrong place. Nothing spells amateur more quickly than a grocer’s apostrophe.

But how do I find these mythical agents, I hear you wail. The best way is by word of mouth. You may know someone who knows someone who knows someone who has a lovely agent. If you can get a recommendation, so much the better. But this is a delicate business; test the waters gently. Some authors do not want to share their toys, for perfectly reasonable or utterly childish reasons. If you do not have any contact, however tenuous, with someone who is published and knows an agent, get a copy of the Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook. There you will find lists and lists of literary agencies. Pay attention and choose carefully. You will feel an awful fool if you send off your brilliant children’s fable to someone who only deals in gardening books.

Then buy yourself a very large bottle of gin, sit back, and wait. I wish you the best of British luck. And luck of any other nationality too. Because we all need it.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day Two

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

A small health warning: this is hideously long, much too long for a blog, so I quite forgive you if you decide not to go all the way to the end. As I said yesterday, it is an experiment, and as with all experiments, may prove not to work at all. But I am bashing on with it, just in case.

A general point.

Give yourself formal permission: you may write, you must write. If you feel you have something to express, and the dream and will to do it, nothing can stop you. You might not get published, but you can still be a writer. It’s not all about agents and prizes. One man I know wrote a brilliant novel a few years ago and just put in in a drawer. It was the doing of the thing itself that gave him the joy and satisfaction. He told me this when I was in my twenties, all crazed with ambition, and I could not believe it or understand it. But I am starting to understand it now. You must love the writing for its very own self, or you just are after your name in lights, and that is thin gruel. Writers like to make a melodrama about how hard writing is, because otherwise they are just an individual sitting in a room, and there is no drama in that. It is hard, and it can frustrate and baffle and make your very eyes ache. But if you do not also love doing it, there is no point.

The worry of originality.

Consider the fact that no one in the world has the exact set of chromosomes and calibration of DNA that you do. Your very cells are unique. No one has seen the things you have seen or thought the things you have thought. The only time you risk being unoriginal is when you write what you imagine what other people want you to write. So remember your own originality and have the courage to follow your own goofy little star, wherever it may take you.

Critics, redux:

I talked yesterday about critics, and how they can kill and crush talent, and your self-confidence along with it. Quite often the critics are people who love you and mean well. You have to learn to be firm but kind with them and not pay them too much mind, but you also have to learn to laugh at your own inner critics, scoff at them, SEND THEM OUT OF THE ROOM. Let them try to write a book if they are so bloody clever.

A good trick to neutralise the negative inner voices is to imagine you are writing a hilarious or thoughtful or touching letter to a friend who really loves you and believes in you. Lots of books on writing suggest this, and I think it is a good technique. The friend does not care that you might have put a semi-colon in the wrong place, she just wants to know what you think and what you see and what you have experienced: this is all of interest to her. If you let yourself imagine you are writing for publication, and summon up pitiless readers and stern critics, then you may never get past chapter one, unless you are very cussed indeed.

This is first draft advice. In the second draft, you should actually go back with your critic’s hat on, and cut and polish and shift whole blocks of text around. Sometimes you may go so far as to junk an entire character, because you realise they have no place there. You must get your semi-colons in a row. But try to write your first draft bathed in imagined love and admiration, or you will never get it done.

The curse of write what you know:

This is such an old piece of advice and I think it’s nonsense. As someone once said: what did Kafka know - the insurance business? Write what fascinates you, what thrills you, what scares you, what intrigues you, what puzzles you. What you don’t know about it, find out. That’s what books and maps and encyclopaedias are for. Essentially, the heart of every story, every memoir, every play, every poem, is the human condition, and you know everything about that because you are a human being and the elemental human desires and fears and joys and griefs are universal.

Learning to think creatively:

We are all told that thinking is something serious, and must be intellectually coherent, and important. This can paralyse you when you sit down to write: I must think of something good, worthwhile, meaningful. And your mind goes to mud, or freezes, and you can think of nothing, so you slink off dolefully and do something easier, find a hundred displacement activities to occupy your hands, or twenty chores that must be done right this very minute. And your writing time is lost.

But if you take away this thinking imperative, breathe deeply, locate yourself absolutely in the present, with no past critical voices or future fears, and let your mind go a little slack and start to dream, something will come. It may make no sense to you. Trust it. It is the creative part of you, the childish part almost, coming out, saying thank you thank you, because no one has listened to it for such a long time. It might come as kind of word association – you think of a scarlet coat, and that leads to a picture of someone posting a letter, and the letter is going to California, where they have orange groves and film stars, and once you dreamed of driving all the way up the coast of California but you never went, because your sister got ill, and you had to look after her and remember your duties, and then you recall the smell of illness, and the fearful part of you that it touched, and how you tried to hide that part, and what that felt like. All that from one red coat.

This is just loose free writing, and is a good way to flex your writing muscles and hear your own authentic voice. For starting a story, you can practice the same way, but with a little more discipline. Put your character in the physical place you want her to be. Don’t start writing at once. Know her, and what you think her story is. Now get the dreaming going: she is the room, you see the room – what sounds are there, what smells? The scent of new paint or gardenias, which might stir something in her; the sound of a bus stopping outside, which takes her back to a moment in her youth (I always adored the top of the bus; it is my whole teenage self in one snapshot). Now you are anchored in the time and place of your story. Bring the dreams and thoughts that are going in your head into focus: which are relevant to your story? Now start writing them down. You will be amazed. You will think yourself a perfect genius.

Or, you will not. Nothing much will come. You are distracted. You think: this is the famous writer’s block. So now you have to be practical and brisk. You are not having a lightning bolt of inspiration, but you are a writer, and writers write. So say that you will do five hundred words. They will not be good words, and you will probably have to delete them all tomorrow. Just get your fingers moving, and do them. Resign yourself to the fact that they will not spring off the page in riotous joy. I quite often write in this state, and what amazes me is how many times I come back to what I thought so dull and flat and find that it is in fact rather good.

The fear, one more time:

The fear, which I also talked about yesterday, is not just of people pointing and mocking, but also that you might find yourself just unable to do it. I think you can feed off the fear, a little, in a damn them all if they can’t get the joke kind of way; you need an I’ll show them all defiance. But you also need to deconstruct the fear. If you have the fear that goes who am I to call myself a writer? you might find that in fact you are afraid of displeasing your mother, or your sister, or your old teacher, who always told you that you were a certain kind of person. You might be afraid of unsettling people’s expectations of you. You might be afraid of exposure. You may have ancient scars from being bullied or teased.

Some techniques for fiction.

Show not tell. Instead of describing what someone is feeling, try to put it into dialogue, or in action, even a small gesture. What are they doing? What are they not saying?
The idea is to make the text active, instead of passive.
You can do inner monologue for this. Instead of saying Jane was tired and demoralised, give her a little speech that she reads herself in her head.
Instead of saying Jane was embarrassed, what could we see her doing or saying? Think about what you do when you are embarrassed, how it manifests itself, where you feel it in the body, what you do with your hands.
This is not an immutable rule: sometimes you absolutely can just tell. Sometimes the simple power of a plain declarative sentence can say everything; sometimes you only need to write: she was sad. But it’s a good rule to keep in mind.


All characters come from you. They are little slivers of what you would be like if you were a different person with a different name and lived in a different time.
There are great writers who have done it, but I personally find it dangerous to base characters on real people, not because they might sue you, but because you can never entirely know another human being. I’m not sure we ever even know ourselves. So when your character based on your Aunt Maud is in a sticky situation, you have no idea how she would react, because you don’t know what Aunt Maud would do. You can use real people as starting points – the women in the crazy red hat, the man who collects stone eggs – but then you must make them your very own.

Characters, like plots, start with what ifs. What if there was a woman who dreamed of living in a lighthouse ever since she read the story of Grace Darling when she was a child, and what if she fell in love with a lighthouse keeper, and once her dream became reality, she hated it, because it was nothing like Grace Darling, and she blamed him for it, because she was the kind of person who refused to take responsibility for her own actions. And what if she loved plums but hated pomegranates, and could not sleep at night unless she had listened to the shipping forecast and read obsessively about UFO conspiracies and thought that the stories about Area 51 were all true?

Just keep asking yourself questions. What if, what if? Trust your instincts. Although you cannot go too far; there must be coherence. The difference between life and fiction is that fiction is believable, and life, quite often, is not.

A useful technique is to interview your characters, while you are in the bath, at the bank, stuck in traffic. What is it that they want, but they can’t quite get? What wrong constructions do they carry from their messed up childhood? What terrifies them when they wake at 3am?
You need to like them, with all their flaws. They must have flaws, although an interesting thing to do would be to create a character whose only flaw is that she is perfect. If you are going to write a novel, you are going to be living with them for a long time, so it helps if you feel fondly towards them. Or, if you want to create a monster, create such a riveting one that you cannot pull your eyes away, even if the expression on your face is one of horror.

Kurt Vonnegut once said: ‘When I used to teach creative writing, I would tell the students to make their characters want something right away - even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralysed by the meaninglessness of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.’
I think that all stories are essentially about a character wanting something. The most important thing to know about your characters is what they want. And also, what they most fear.

I do not believe the conceit that if you are doing your job well, your characters will somehow take over and you can just sit back and watch them go. I think: you are in charge, you damn well make them do what you want. They, or the story itself, might surprise you sometimes, because you will not have worked out every single last thing in your head, but you are the boss and no one should forget it. Nabokov has a lovely quote about that: ‘That trite little whimsy about characters getting out of hand; it is as old as the quills. My characters are galley slaves.’

Character Arc:

This is a real old chestnut, but it is vital. Readers like to see the character change. It’s like a scientific equation: you create the character, and you make things happen to him, and you watch, like a scientist, to see what his reaction will be. Often it is the most unexpected or illogical thing.

If, after all the exciting incidents that you think up, James is still the same obsessive compulsive crossword addict that he was at the beginning, your readers are going to want their money back, and I am afraid you should give it to them.

Using sense memory.

The way to make your characters come alive is not just to give them a set of attributes – hates cheese, loves politics, dreads social engagements. You have to feel them. I know this sounds a little whacky, but it really works. To do this, you need to draw on your own sense memories. If he is shy, remember your own shyest moments, what you did, what exactly the feeling was, where it was (I feel shyness in my throat, like a stiff ache). Then give that feeling to your character.

It is not exactly you, because your character will not be a carbon copy, but a version of you, one that might not be at all recognisable to the outside world; you are giving the characters attributes and base emotions that you know, deep down, that you remember. I have written about gay men, suicidal women, married women with children – all things I am not, and yet they are all me, in a sense. Your life is an absolute dressing up chest of experience and emotion, so rifle through it, and pick out the costume you want. It is all there.

Beware of clichés here. Fear is often described as being in the chest. Personally, I feel visceral fear, particularly of heights, right in my stomach, a sharp pulling in the gut. I feel yearning in the chest. So being truthful is really important. Locate your emotions. When I am tired and cross, I feel it like a flat weight on my head, like a tired and cross hat. I feel frustration somewhere between my eyes. Really think about your body, and where it stores emotions, and what it does with them, and how they come out.

Story and plot.

Plot tends to come out of character. You should have the characters first. Get your main protagonist; start dreaming him or her up. Live with her for a few days.
Then you are back to the What if? What if she was a journalist who dreamed of breaking a big story but did not have the contacts or the experience or even the courage? And what if, through a coincidence or a friend or someone from school that she had not seen for years, she stumbled on her big story – something to do with CIA rendition using British airbases, for example. What happens then?

Don’t be afraid of the old stories. They are the good ones, and they will never have been told the way you are going to tell them. The little guy up against bigger forces is always a great story. But stories can be simple and not sensational. Boy meets girl, loves girl, gets girl, loses girl and must win her back is one that everyone loves. Stories should mirror the great human desires – love, understanding, some sort of purpose in life. That is why Voltaire said that there are only seven stories in the world and they have all been told. And yet, we can never get enough of them..

Your story can be big, or small, as long as it is true. By which I do not mean it has actually happened in life, but is true to you and the characters you have created. You are making up lies to tell the truth: this is how humans are.

Getting started.

Just go. There is always an excuse - you have not done enough research, you need to work out more of the plot. All this might be true, but one day you need to sit yourself down and just start. Try to hit the ground running: you do not have to lay an elaborate table. A good trick is to start a scene half way through. Remember the magic of writing: you do not have to see the person walking in the door, sitting down, smoothing their skirt. They are just there. Sometimes it is good to start right in the middle of a conversation. Remember that the unities need not apply. You can flash forward in time and back.

The release of information is a crucial idea to become so comfortable and familiar with that it is like an ancient slipper. Don’t tell everything at once. Drop hints, let the reader do some of the work, make the reader wonder. You know everything, but you don’t have to tell them everything, not yet, maybe not ever. Trust your readers. Don’t insult them by thinking they must have everything spelt out to them in large childish letters. This is a sort of sister act to the show, don’t tell conceit. Instead of saying that she felt nervous, and explaining in excruciating detail exactly why, show her shredding a napkin, tapping her foot, laughing too loudly.

If you are writing a scene of hilarity or grief or any strong emotion, take a moment to imagine fully, to remember fully, what that really feels like. This will anchor the emotion in reality and make it come alive. Try not to have your characters bursting into tears every five minutes. Tears are rather dangerous in fiction, for some reason; use them wisely.

A few random observations:

Be cautious of adverbs and adjectives, although if you choose good ones they can work marvellously for you. The hardliners say you must go through your manuscript and strike them all out, but I think this is too harsh. A good, hard-working adjective in just the right place will do you fine service.

Be very careful of not falling into the trap of ‘writerly’ over-description. Tea is just tea. You do not need any nonsense about hot sweet liquid; everyone knows what tea is.

Be aware of pace. Chop up text: long paragraphs interspersed with short ones. A period of introspection needs to be followed by fast action.


The question to ask is what is at stake here? What does the person most care about?
That is the tension that comes out of character. You can also create tension in the way you release information. You have to know exactly what is going to happen, although not necessarily when – and remember that you always have the right to change that as you go along, nothing is carved in stone – but the decision is: what do you tell the reader and when. You need to lay little trails of breadcrumbs. Give them enough to keep them interested and guessing – remember the potency of the words What Happens Next? But at the same time, don’t torture them. Give them enough so that they are not entirely mystified, or they will get baffled and give up. Think of a taut string, pulling the reader through the story: this is the tension at the heart of what you are writing. It creates momentum and interest and mystery.

A little bit of Jack Kerouac, just because:

Be in love with yr life
Be crazy dumbsaint of the mind
Blow as deep as you want to blow
Write what you want bottomless from the bottom of the mind
Remove literary, grammatical and syntactical inhibition
Write in recollection and amazement for yourself

Today’s writing exercise:
Again, anything you want, take it where you will, without thought, without editing, without stopping. Five minutes on: The Red Dress. Go, GO.

A little dose of TS.

I talked a lot today in the class about falling in love with language, playing with it, stretching it, experimenting with it, thinking about the words you love and the words you hate. I have already written too much to go into it here, but perhaps the most important thing to remember about language is not to be afraid of the short, blunt, simple words; they often carry the most power. Clarity and brevity are always your friends. You don’t need to get fancy just because you are consciously sitting down to be a Writer. If you remember one thing, remember that rain is always better than precipitation. Even if you never write a poem in your life, it is important to go to poetry every so often, to remind yourself of the majesty of what words alone can do on a page. To illustrate this, I closed my class today by reading the first half of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. If you have it on your shelf, get it down and read it now, and marvel at the sublime beauty of the English language.

And a final, more personal note:

This is a hard edit, a ruthless prune of the longer version that I gave to the class itself, I apologise if it sounds a little abrupt and choppy in places. The irony is that it is not my best writing, but since I am continuing my own mighty battle against perfectionism I am going to let it stand as it is.

None of these rules is written in granite; you can ignore what you want, and take what you like. Perhaps the only thing I know to be absolutely true is that, like anything in life, the more you practice, the better you get. And I cannot resist adding, true to my enduring theme, that the more love you can give what you write, the better it will be. Throw passion at your work, and it will bloom like a garden in springtime.

Monday, 22 June 2009

Writing Workshop: Day One

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

This week, I am giving a writers’ workshop as part of the Aboyne Arts Festival. I thought that it would be an interesting experiment to give you an edited, written version of what I am talking about to the class each day, so that you can follow along from wherever you are in the world. It is quite a lot to read, and you may decide that this does not work in blog form, but I am going to try it out and see where it takes us. Let me know your thoughts.


Over the week, I am going to talk about writing in the abstract, the way a writer’s mind works, how to think of yourself as a writer, how perhaps to skew your perspective on the world just a little bit. Then I will give you some technical hints and tips and general advice – adjectives and semi-colons and narrative techniques. Then I might talk about the new places for you to develop your writing, blogs and social networking sites, in particular Twitter, which I think is much more interesting than most old media types seem to. Finally I shall give you some basic ideas about how to get published, how the world of publishing works, and why you should not do anything without an agent.

We are going to do some quick writing exercises to free up your writing muscles and get the fear monkey off your back. All writers live with fear, mostly the fear that the perfect book that lives in their head will never, ever make it to the page. Something happens between the head and the fingers – you sit down to type and that pristine story is gone, as if there is a vital neurone missing somewhere, a connection that did not quite fire.

And there are the other fears, that you will never get published again and end up broke and forgotten and people will give you pitying looks in the streets and the only time you will ever see any evidence that you existed is when you occasionally see a lone copy of one of your books in the remainder bin. So there’s quite a lot of terror to go round. But what you have to learn is to get it away from you while you are actually writing, to master the inner critic, who needs only the smallest excuse to start marching around your head bitching about how you really will never fully master the intricacies of the English language and you might as well give it all up and do something interesting with sheep.

The Fear.

The Fear takes many forms. The most profound is the secret, crippling conviction that you are not allowed to be a writer unless you have certain qualifications. You must be born in the right place, to the right parents, with the right education. You must also have a specific God-given talent, a feeling for words, the equivalent of a musical ear. The other form of the Fear is an internalised memory, of teachers mostly, telling you that no, no, it is not done that way, and if you do not do it in the correctly prescribed way you will never amount to anything. There are rules, there are criteria, there are things that people expect. All of this is nonsense. I cannot stress this enough. I will say it again: all of this is nonsense. The point about writing is that if you are willing to work hard enough, to listen closely to your own voice, to push past the terror, you will be able to do it. I’m not saying it will be easy. All good writers know that writing is hard. Bad writing is a simple matter, you just have to put your fingers on the keyboard and go. Serious writing, and writing is serious, is difficult. But if you put in the time, it is not beyond your reach.

So you have to bash past the voices in your head that tell you you don’t have the right stuff to be a writer, that you didn’t do it the correct way at school, that you don’t have the right pedigree. Start thinking of yourself as a writer; describe yourself as one, if you are brave enough. A useful psychological exercise is literally to give yourself permission. All humans need ritual and ceremony: send yourself a card, have a private inaugural of your writing life. Imagine your inner critic as an actual person, a bitter old crone called Glenda, and each morning before you begin to write, banish her from the room. Swear as much as you like while you do this, you will find it cathartic. Anything to crush the idea that somehow you do not have the right equipment, that you are not allowed. There is no secret password, it is not a club that only a select few may join. Anyone with fingers and an inquiring mind can write; it is a craft and the more you do it, the better you will get. Some of you will start off with a natural advantage, in the way that some people have an acute visual sense or a feeling for mathematics, but if you concentrate hard enough, you can produce good prose, even if you do not have lunch with Martin Amis every day.

The best way I have found to get around the fear, this idea that somehow you are not permitted to be a writer, is to do what writers do (and I don’t mean get drunk at parties and punch people in the nose and sleep with persons who are married to someone else). You need to write. Find a desk, set a time, close the door, turn off the telephone and do it. Writing is like a muscle, you need to flex it every day or it will grow soft and flabby. Good writing does not fall out of the sky like magical rain; it is built from day after day after day of honing that writing muscle until it is ready for the Olympics. Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting idea that genius is not born, not a genetic freak or a random lightning bolt of extreme talent, but that it is developed after ten thousand hours of practice. I don’t know where he got the figure of ten thousand from, but it sounds about right to me. The only reason I can now carry a tune is because I have been doing this thing pretty much every day for twenty years. I cannot just order myself a brilliant Virginia Woolf mind, but I can damn well train up those writing muscles until they hurl me down the track like Linford Christie in his pomp.


Authenticity is possibly the single most important thing in good writing. By authenticity I mean that when you write you must express your actual true self, not some dressed up Sunday best version of what you think a writer should sound like. Any fakery or phoniness will destroy any attempt at good writing. You have to have the audacity and the faith to be absolutely yourself. If you start using long words and fancy phrases because you think they sound ‘literary’, you are doomed. Ernest Hemingway built an entire glittering career on words of one syllable.

Tell the stories that fascinate you (as someone whose name I cannot remember once said: if your writing does not keep you up nights it will not keep anyone else up either); use the words that you love; map the people you understand; throw about the ideas that stimulate you. The moment you start thinking about an audience, or agents, or publishers, or, God forbid, the market, your writing will die on the page. Writing is like a dog like that, one false move, and it lies down on the carpet and plays dead. The false note is death to writing, because the readers get it at once, they have some superhuman radar that lets them know when it is not your heart that is in it, and they, like Dorothy Parker, do not just put the book down, they hurl it with great force. As they damn well should. If you have to put on a front because you don’t trust yourself to be interesting enough why should anyone be interested in you? So the paradox is, and writing is filled with paradox, that in order to give the greatest amount of pleasure you have to be solipsistic – the only person you should ever write for is you. If you entrance and delight and tickle yourself, chances are that you will have the same effect on other people.

The other paradox is that while you are having all this belief in your one true self and trusting your instincts, you must also work constantly at refining and developing your craft. I know it sounds madly pretentious and phoney to talk about ‘your craft’, but that is the best description for what it is. So while you should trust your voice, you should not be so overcome by its innate brilliance that you neglect to throw a whole bucket of work at it. This is what second and third and fourth drafts are for. It is here that you may cut and polish and edit. You should not confuse self-belief, which you should welcome in, with self-indulgence, which you must ruthlessly exclude. The best writers in the world will write a rotten or pointless or redundant paragraph. What makes them good is that they have the discipline to cut that paragraph and not look back. Your words are precious but they are not set in stone. You must hunt down worn phrases and repetition and waffle like a beagle and throw them out. But before you do that you need to develop a trust in your very own voice, your unique thoughts, your own ideas, or you will have nothing to work on but a poor pastiche that struts and frets its hour upon the stage and then is heard no more.

An exercise:

Now, try a five minute writing exercise. It can be a snapshot, a haiku, a stream of consciousness; it can be completely abstract, just words on a page, a very specific description of something, a memory, a conversation, even a miniature story. You can write a story in six words, they had a competition for it once. ‘Man bites dog, dog tells all’ is a story, even though it plainly breaks the law of physics and involves a canine who can speak. But it is a story.

There is no SHOULD in this exercise. There is no A plus. It’s just to loosen you up and shake the demons and the gremlins out and to get your hand moving across the page. It’s to get rid of any self-consciousness and fear. I want you to do it without editing, without thought, without stopping; work on pure instinct and see where it takes you. The point of this exercise is to get past the Fear, to let your one true voice out, and also to see your strengths. You will be able to see if you have a vivid visual sense or a facility for language or a natural feel for rhythm (rhythm is very important in writing; one syllable too many or too few, and a sentence will collapse on itself; the exact right number of beats, and it will sing). Let your mind run free. You may surprise yourself.

I’m going to give you a word and I want you to write for five minutes and the word is Blue.

A practical note.

Possibly the best book on writing ever written is almost a hundred years old and still in print. It is Becoming a Writer by Dorothea Brande. And the most valuable piece of practical advice that she gives in that marvellous book is that every morning, before you are even really awake, you should roll out of bed, go straight to your desk, and write without thought or reflection for twenty minutes. The idea is that you tone up your writing muscle and you also access your subconscious, because you are still in a dreaming state; the hard, ruthless, rational part of your brain has not yet had time to kick in, and so you will find hidden jewels, unexpected ideas, thoughts you did not even know you had.

I have a slightly refined version of this, since it is not always possible to write the moment you wake (baths must be taken, breakfast made, children taken to school), and, also, you may find twenty minutes is a long time to do free writing in this way. My version is to set aside ten minutes at any quiet time of the day, vow to yourself that no one will ever see what you are about to write, thus giving yourself absolute freedom to make a mess and embarrass yourself, and then write fast about anything at all that is in your head until your time is up. This trains up your writing muscle, helps you vanquish the Fear (no one will ever see, so no one can point and laugh), and, most important of all, builds up the habit of writing. Habits actually create grooves in the brain, worn connections between neurones, which is why they are so hard to break. But a good habit, developed over time, can make something feel like second nature to you. You begin to get withdrawal symptoms if you do not do it. In this way, writing becomes not a chore or a duty or something to be dreaded, but a familiar, known, loved friend.

One final note:

Please forgive any editing errors in this. I have to prepare for tomorrow’s class, and very much want to get this up on the blog, so I have not been as rigorous as I would like about doing my usual edit for grammar and repetition and general typing. Not quite practising what I preach, but maybe the best rule of all in writing is that rules are made to be broken. Any piece of prose without a little transgression in it is a sad thing.


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