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.


  1. I found that very interesting!

  2. I feel I should start printing out each post and get it bound to put up on the shelf as reference text.
    Really interesting - more tomorrow please, if poss. x

  3. Oh you are both so lovely. I feel it is a terrible imposition to ask people to read such long tranches of text on a blog, which is really a medium for the short and the sharp. You are miracles to keep going to the end, and much appreciated by me.


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