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.


  1. This is a masterclass - so much to take in. If you are doing any classes in Hants/London/Sussex area let me know! Interesting what you say about the tragic flaw - fact often stranger than fiction. But it is the flaws that make people fascinating.

  2. Just so much to take in and many many good pieces of advice. Never once felt as if I had to don wellies and wade through posts, but rather floated along as in manner of earnest butterfly absorbing information.
    Thank you for sharing your hard work with those of us not fortunate to be up there in Scotland.


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