Friday, 8 July 2011

Writing Workshop, Day Five.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

Last day, my darlings. I salute all of you who have stuck with it.

Some practical matters, and other ephemera, which may or may not be helpful. As always, take what you want and leave the rest:

Work out how you work best. Some people prefer a pen and pad; some find typing much easier. If you do not know how to touch type, and there is a way you could learn, learn. It only takes a couple of weeks. If there was one piece of advice I would give to any young person, it is: learn to type.
Do you need silence? Or is silence overwhelming? I often write to Mozart. The scientists say he stimulates parts of the brain other composers do not reach. I’ll take any help I can get.

Get a really good thesaurus. Get in the habit of using it. Read it for fun. It is a good habit to go rummaging for the exact right word; do not put up with second best. On the other hand, be careful. Sometimes the thing just is red. It is not vermilion or scarlet or carmine. Sometimes, as Gertrude Stein once said, a rose is a rose is a rose.
Read the kind of books you want to write. If you long to write thrillers, read them. Read the good ones. Read up.

Have at least one special subject. Even if you do not use it directly in your writing, it will enrich it. At the same time, it’s good to be a bit of a generalist. Collect knowledge. Someone cleverer than I said: know everything about one thing, and know a little about everything.

I find that reading poetry is helpful, even if you do not want to write it. It gives depth to your feeling for language. I like Auden, Eliot, Yeats, Robert Lowell, Hugo Williams. Find a poet you love and go back to them every week, even if it’s only for five minutes.

I also think that you should read Shakespeare every once in a while. I know that makes me sound like a schoolmarm, but he was the master and there is so much that he does with truth and words and the human heart that you should know. There should be a bit of you which is infected with Shakespeare. I often find myself unconsciously paraphrasing him: the slings and arrows, the sorrows that all flesh is heir to. He can bring a richness to your writing and thought. You don’t have to read all of him, but I do think a working knowledge of Macbeth, Lear, Hamlet and Anthony and Cleopatra is really helpful.

Take a notebook everywhere. You will forget. That piece of deathless prose that runs through your mind while you are cooking will die. That brilliant idea you had just before you went to sleep will have evaporated like water on glass by morning. I like the little Moleskin books. Have one in the car, by the stove, beside your bed.

Learn to listen. This sounds mad: of course all humans know how to listen. Actually, I think it a skill like any other. Often, in conversation, you get so excited by your own ideas that you are just waiting to say what you want to say, rather than really listening to the other person. Quite apart from the fact that it is a human courtesy, it is vital for your writing.
Watch, too. Be a human detective. Learn to look out for the tiny things. It is fascinating how much people can reveal through the smallest twitch or movement or shift in tone.

Do not forget the senses. It’s not just cerebral. What did things smell like, taste like, feel like?

Ask questions. You can do this of people, although sometimes you may fear this is rude. Ask questions of yourself, of the culture, of the accepted wisdom, of the things you take for granted.

Allow yourself enthusiasms. Passion is important in writing. Be a bit obsessive, if you want to. (This may be a massive great rationalisation on my part. I am obsessive, so of course like to spin it into a Good Thing. It might be just what it is.)

Remember the universal emotions: love, hate, fear. 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 is too strong.

A note on Motivation:

I want you to think about it. 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, what? You can go shopping? Have a nice holiday? Get a diamond or a boat? You cross the ultimate human taboo for a bit more cash? A man was convicted of killing his wife last year. He murdered her so he could collect 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 slaughtered, with thought and care, the women he had sworn to honour and love. It’s not only brutal and tragic, but it is beyond strange.

People kill for shame: they perform honour killings, which have nothing of honour about them.

You do not have to go to the macabre or the extreme. Think of more ordinary motivations, especially the ones that one tends to take for granted, but are in fact quite odd, once you dissect them a little.

And a final word, on first and last lines:

I always says that generally you should not write with a reader or a publisher or a market in mind. Always remember that you are writing to fascinate and entertain and entrance yourself. If you can delight yourself, the chances are you might delight your reader.

Occasionally, it can be helpful to write with one, perfect, Platonic reader in mind. But if you set out to be commercial and successful by second-guessing the tastes of the public or the needs of the market, you will fail. Never forget that Harry Potter was turned down by tens of agents and twenties of publishers because at the time it was universally agreed that no one wanted to read boarding school stories. Also, trying to meet some artificial idea of what sells can induce a degree of self-consciousness. So my advice always is: do not think of the readers, but write the book you most want to read yourself, which you cannot find on the shelf.

However, there is a debt of honour you owe your readers: if they give you their precious time, you give them the best prose you can manage. And there is one other moment when you need to be acutely conscious of an actual person picking up your book, and that is when you are writing your first and last lines.

The first is for a very obvious reason. Someone is in the bookshop, there are hundreds of books before them, you do not have a famous name, you have not slept with a film star, why should they choose yours? They open the first page. If you do not grab them with a zinging first line, they will put the book down and move onto your rivals. Also, the first line is important for you because it will set the tone. If it contains the perfect chime of truth, you are more likely to go on to write a good story.

Here are some of my favourite examples:

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, 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 though 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.

(Of this one, I said to my students today: it is a high risk opener. If Maddox Ford does not live up to that promise, then we are going to ask for our money back. Luckily, he had the good stuff to back up his bold claim.)

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

The good last line is for a slightly different reason. The book is bought by now; you are not working on purely mercenary motives, you are not trying to catch anyone’s attention. But I do think you owe your faithful reader something lovely and satisfying and complete, so that when they put the book down, they feel a proper sense of closure. Also, and this is the mercenary part, if you leave something evocative and haunting in their memory, they are more likely to buy your next book.

Here are a clutch of my favourite 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.

My students were very splendid. They were brave and good and true. They did some wonderful writing today; there were gasps and laughter and even a tear in the room. I hope they, and those of you who have followed this online, go on to write the books and stories of their, and your, dreams.

I did at last take a picture of the garden, so here are some growing things:

8 July 1

8 July 2

8 July 3

8 July 4

8 July 5

8 July 6

8 July 7

8 July 8
8 July 10

And the most lovely Pigeon, with her little ears:

8 July 11


  1. Fellow obsessive here.

    That last photo of The Pigeon is lovely. But then, is there ever a bad Pigeon photo?

    Thank-you so much for posting these! It's been fun to read along.

  2. wonderful writing tips and what beautiful flowers!! HHL

  3. I'm going to print out your writing course and read it during the holidays, it's inspiring. Thank you

  4. Thanks I think largely to this lovely series, I finally made myself sit down and spend a serious hour and a half on plot today, and will probably do more later. It has made a huge difference. Thank you so much!

  5. Tonia, thanks so much for taking the time during this busy week to post your writing lessons for us. I've found them so interesting, and plan to print them out so I can refer to them whenever I want inspiration and encouragement. I'm sure Pigeon is glad to have you home again...

  6. I have enjoyed this so much. Sad this is the last one of your writing posts. Do, please, post more thoughts on writing when the whim takes you! Agree about the poetry. I have had a minor obsession with J. Alfred Prufrock this week for some reason. If you fall into bed too tired to read a book you can always manage a poem.

  7. Lovely.
    Simply lovely.

    Thank you, Tania.

  8. Thank YOU. What incredibly kind and touching and encouraging comments.

  9. Thank you for your writing comment; helpful to me submerged in the rush hour of exam-weary teenager holidays and with a writing deadline I could do without. Thank you for uplifting photos - and of course one of the beautiful Pideon.

  10. Thank you for your writing comment; helpful to me submerged in the rush hour of exam-weary teenager holidays and with a writing deadline I could do without. Thank you for uplifting photos - and of course one of the beautiful Pideon.


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