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.


  1. A very kind friend of mine gave me a notebook with the words, 'A writer is a person for whom writing is more difficult than it is for other people'. I'm pretty sure they're Thomas Mann's words, but they've kept me going through the tyranny of the blank page time and time again. And your wonderful, inspiring, ineffably helpful posts have got me through the long dark teatime of the soul - it was serendipidous timing: was about to give it up as a bad job.

  2. I am loving these posts, Tania. They are indeed too long for me to read onscreen, but the printed version is both a delightful read and a wonderful resource to have. Thank you!

    BTW, did you happen to see a recent guest post I did on writing? Do take a peek if you have a minute:

  3. I'm enjoying these very much. As I sit upstairs with my tea, my outline and notes and do the hard work - it's good to know it should be hard work. The bit about the draft - just write it, no matter how miserable it feels is wonderful advice. When I can write nothing good, I can still write -- and editing is easier than writing, eh?

    The best comment I ever got about my writing was from my then 14 yr old son, reading a draft of a short essay and saying, very gently, "Mom, that is a marvelous paragraph, but it really must go in another essay." For the record, it came out, and is still reading Dante with my other little darlings.

  4. Mrs T - love Thomas Mann quote. Love the word 'ineffably'. Love that you have not given up. Never give up. You are too good.

    Debra - so glad you are enjoying posts despite heinous length. Shall look at your guest post the moment this teaching week is over. I adore it, but it drains me like nothing else and when I get home I am good for nothing.

    Michelle - how kind you are and how lucky to have such a sage son. He sounds marvellous. Shitty first draft is most liberating advice in the world, but cannot claim credit: it is from the wonderful Anne Lamott, and I thank her for it daily.


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