Friday, 9 July 2010

Writing, Day Five

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

My students have undone me. They were so good today they  made me cry. I am not being figurative or hyperbolic. Actual salt water sprang from my eyes.

'It's the Irish in me,' I said, all gruff and embarrassed. Because as every fule no, the Irish never stop weeping for a single solitary second; the streets of Dublin swim in rivers of tears.

Also: they gave me a fuchsia. A FUSCIA. It is the fattest, most gaudy peacock of a fuchsia I ever saw. And cards filled with kind messages, and a lovely tray made of willow, and all sorts.

Most of all, they gave me their trust. They wrote so well and bravely today that I ran out of superlatives.

As a result, I can't really remember much of what I spoke about today, let alone summon the vigour to write it all down. (You can find a full version of last year's class here.)

But I cannot leave you without a few final snippets.

I talked of the dull practical things:

Get an agent. Never send anything directly to a publisher; it will end up on the slush pile, and that will make you sad. Consult the Writers' and Artists' Yearbook, send a polite covering letter, a one-page synopsis, and the first three chapters. Polish these to within an inch of their lives. If there is one grocer's apostrophe, or a single misuse of the words imply and infer, or even the hint of a dangling modifier, no one will ever take you seriously in this town again. Make sure everything is double spaced. No fancy fonts, now. Times New Roman point 12 is an excellent, professional choice.

Research. Do as much as you can, as fast as you can. I find if you do it intensively, it is more likely to live in your head, and you do not have to spend half your time consulting your copious notes. Be ruthlessly vigilant about anachronisms. If someone answers a telephone before Alexander Graham Bell was even born, the fourth wall is broken, the suspension of disbelief is lost, and your brilliant historical novel lies in ruins at your feet.

More generally:

Search always for the clear spine of your story. You can do diversions and tangents (I am addicted to tangents) and musings, but always return to that lovely, central arrow. If the spine is not strong, the thing will not hold.

I always remember that line from Amadeus, when the Emperor told Mozart: 'Too many notes'. Sometimes there are just too many notes. Get out your secateurs and prune.

On a related note: you always have to kill your darlings. Be alert for any whiff of self-indulgence. The phrase or the paragraph or the idiom might be lovely in itself; it might make you laugh; but if it is not pulling its weight in the piece, it has to go. I find the process of darling murder so agonising that I keep a special file titled: Dead Darlings. That way I do not have to do daily battle with the delete button. Like the Norwegian parrot, they are not quite dead, they are just resting.

Be bold. Take risks. Remember, no one is ever going to see your first draft. If you fall flat on your face, it will only be in the privacy of your own boudoir.

EM Forster said a marvellous, true thing. He said: 'The king died and then the queen died' is a story. 'The king died and then the queen died of grief' is a plot.

Hemingway also said something that I think is shiningly true. He said: Forget your personal tragedy. We are all bitched from the start and you especially have to be hurt like hell before you can write seriously. But when you get the damned hurt, use it - don't cheat with it. (I have a suspicion that he was writing to F Scott Fitzgerald when he said that, but I cannot be quite certain.)

I say: in the end, you have to do it for the love of the thing itself. You should write because you cannot not write. Writing is difficult, and baffling, and maddening, but it also holds a lot of joy. I think we write to make sense of the world, which often has no sense. I think we write to explain ourselves to ourselves. If you lose the joy, there is not much point to going on. Getting published, getting paid, getting nice reviews are not nothing, but they will not solve any of your problems. Seeing your name in print is an undeniable thrill. But really, that is all jam. The important thing is the writing itself, and, at the risk of sounding like a bumper sticker, I do think that has to come from love.


To any of my students who might be reading this: thank you. You gave me a great gift this week.

To all of you wonderfully kind people out there in the blogosphere, thank you for reading, and for your lovely, generous comments. They make me smile.

I wish you all great joy in your writing.


I leave you with the words of Jack Kerouac:

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


Pictures of the day are of the dogs, because a Friday is not a Friday without a snapshot of canine gorgeousness:



I must thank my darling mum, who looked after them all week, while I was out teaching.

And I would like to thank the Academy…(writer is gently removed, and relocated to a darkened room).


  1. Dear Tania
    You lead a far and so distant life from my own,
    I don't even know through which blog I stumbled over your blog, but surprisingly you slowly became one of my favorites. I am a struggling writer and find you continuously interesting as to where to find and how to hold on to the spirit of writing.
    You are very generous - putting your precious time into this beautiful blog.
    I thank you.

  2. From one of those students.


    I write there I am. A writer!

    You and the group have given me the courage to test the waters – to take it from a toe or a splash through the waves, all the way to the O – Zone. In the north of Scotland, that must be, the Ooooooooohhhhhhhhhh Zone!

    Oh yes, and I am also a numpty for leaving my folder of treasure in the coffee shop. Doh!

    Have a wonderful restful (yeah, likely) weekend.


    Mrs Thing the first

  3. Sounds like they and you had a blast!

  4. Sounds as if your workshop was really sparky and enthusing, and much appreciated!

    I don't know many dogs, but recently spent half an hour alone with two, a half-Alsation and a large long-haired black mongrel. As they're more intelligent and alert to humans than, say, squirrels and rabbits, I did feel, looking at them, that they should have been able to speak! - nothing intellectual, just in gruff voices "Woof! We had a good walk today, woof, and then Sarah threw sticks, woof, and then we had swim..." I don't feel that with cats, perhaps because they're much smaller and more secretive, and don't interact so much with humans. I've just thought of a remark made by Kingsley Amis: "If cats could smile, it would be terrible."

    Your dogs look so happy, shiny and alert!

  5. Thank you so much for sharing your lessons with us in BlogLand thoroughtthe week.. I know I truly appreciated it and learned so much.

    Beautiful dogs!!! Doggie children are so nice to come home to. Enjoy a nice glass of bubbly or wine.. its Friday, you worked hard all week..HHL

  6. I love to read your posts as they are so illuminating. Not just for writers and people who want to write but your advice can be applied to lots of things. Thank you.

  7. I would love to come to your course- it's the most wonderful thing to find occupation that you can submerge yourself in- and when you find people who are as thrilled and consumed by your passion it's like a choir singing in perfect harmony.

    Thank- you for sharing your advice here as well, it's been really fascinating to read.


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