Pathetic Fallacy in November

I'm sitting in my writer's block (shed) gazing out at the downpour outside. The sky is like wet newsprint, running with grey. The rain that is currently drumming on my shed roof, reminding me of wet camping holidays as a child, expresses some of the gloom I feel at...

Drama v Reality

I watched Michael Winterbottom's new film Everyday on Channel 4 last week. It's been described as a sketched drama, which is a difficult term because although I think it means that it was largely improvised, it could also imply that it wasn't fully realised. Hmm.The...

Nick Dear – A Masterclass in Writing From Life

It was a play about writing, and words, and love, and what inspires them all. It was full of beauty and sadness, cadenced.I'm talking about Nick Dear's new drama about the poet Edward Thomas, The Dark Earth and the Light Sky, which has recently opened in London at the...

All Work and No Play

 Yesterday I wrote for twelve hours with barely a pause for breath and I've done six hours today: write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write, write - you get the picture. I'm off to London now, to see Nick Dear's new play about...

Creative Writing – Making Plans

I've been appraising manuscripts for a couple of literary consultants in London recently and there is one thing which crops up time after time in the books that I've been reading and that is a lack of planning. The most brilliant conception is going to lead to an...

At the Edge of the Precipice with F. Scott Fitzgerald

The other day I started re-reading The Great Gatsby because it's recently out of copyright and as a result there has been a lot of brouhaha about it, with dramatisations and new editions galore, and I wanted to remind myself what all the fuss was about. Then I spent a...

Throwing a Sickie…

Vile cold. Here's a lovely door for you to be getting on with. It might lead you somewhere... Normal service will resume shortly.  

Help from Your Favourite Heroines

What is it that makes a character in a novel memorable? Perhaps it would help to answer this question by asking it in a different way: who are the characters you most remember? If you can come up with the who, it might lead you to the why and that in turn might be of...

Room With a View

Pulitzer Prize winning American author Edna Ferber once observed, 'The ideal view for daily writing, hour for hour, is the blank brick wall of a cold-storage warehouse. Failing this, a stretch of sky will do, cloudless if possible.' Perhaps the blank brick wall might...

‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore

I went to see Cheek by Jowl's sensational production of 'Tis Pity She's a Whore at the Bristol Old Vic on Monday. Declan Donellan re-imagines John Ford's Jacobean tragedy for the 21st Century and the macabre and incestuous behaviour of the protagonists Annabella and...

Writing Fiction – Keeping a Sense of Proportion

When you're writing and the white heat of creativity is upon you, it is easy to get so caught up in what you are doing that you start to lose a sense of overall proportion in your work. Just as visual artists step back from their canvases to take in the bigger...

Free Critique of Your Creative Writing

All of us tell tales. We share our triumphs and tribulations with each other, we pass on gossip, we search for meaning and significance in our own experience and in each other's. Sometimes this involves reading fiction, which at its best universalizes the particular,...

Making a Commitment to Your Writing

When you're sitting in front of your computer, staring at the blank screen *what shall I blog about today* and you can see a big, fat, writers block out of the corner of your eye, making some kind of external commitment about your work may help you to get off the...

Fiction Writing – The Unwritten Rules

 Somerset Maugham sums it up pretty neatly,  There are three rules for writing. Unfortunately, no one can agree what they are.I think my three guiding principles would be something like this:Don't write for effect – always serve the story.Edit with obsessive...

Writing Fiction – How to Structure a Story

I rather like this ramshackle old window, snapped in some mediaeval village in France. I like all the different textures: the painted tongue and groove planking, the peeling frame, the cracked, occluded glass and the partial sight of a brick wall beyond that. Think of...

The Wo – Man Booker Prize

I'm giving three resounding cheers for Hilary Mantel, throwing my  cap in the air and cheering to the rafters.The first cheer is because Bring up the Bodies is skeined like silk and woven into a literary tapestry as fine and detailed as any 16th century...

Just Suppose You Juxtapose…

Juxtapose means to put two things side-by-side. If this was all you did with them, it wouldn't be much of a literary trick to pull off. However, it can be useful if you want to make one thing that comment on another, to highlight their similarities or differences, to...

Getting Down to the Nitty-Gritty: Why Detail Matters

British short story supremo VS Pritchett once observed, "Details make stories human, and the more human a story can be, the better," advice we lesser mortals should ignore at our peril. The use of detail is one of the major tools we have for bringing characters to...

How to Do Dialogue When Writing Fiction

Good dialogue is plausible, life-like conversation which reflects the character of the speaker and helps to provide necessary information to advance the plot. Ah-ha! But how do you write good dialogue? Spend some time – lots of it, if you have it – listening to how...

Writing Fiction – Three Common Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them

When you're appraising manuscripts, it's easy to spot the work of an inexperienced writer. The most common pitfalls I come across are these:OverwritingLack of editingLack of planningI suspect that all of these stem from the same overwhelming urge to create. Once you...

National Poetry Day

In a recent question and answer session promoting the Cheltenham Literary Festival, Carol Ann Duffy said, "For me, poetry is the music of being human. And also a time machine by which we can travel to who we were and to who we will become" *Collective sigh of...

How to Get Published? Think Big!

What with the recession and the de-stabilising effects of digital publishing, writers are finding it harder than ever before to get their books conventionally published by one of the traditional houses. Editors' hands are tied by the marketing departments, who seem to...

Architecture for Writers

Prose is architecture, not interior decoration, according to Ernest Hemingway, an interesting insight with which to start the week. If you think of your novel as a work of architecture, you may find yourself looking at the way the story arcs and intersects with more...

The Kindest Cuts of All – A Guide to Editing

Having exhorted you to slash and burn in a recent post, I thought it might be helpful to give you an idea of the kind of things you should be cutting when you are in editing mode.Take the scissors to any adverbs (or -ly word). You shouldn't use two words if one will...

Lost in Translation # 4

There's a lovely moment in Cider with Rosie, where Laurie Lee is told  wait there for the present on his first day at school and he waits, and waits, but there is no present... I was reminded of this when we were in France over the summer. We saw this sign in a...

Extended Gardening Metaphor Alert

Over the weekend, while the weather was still fine, I edited my garden. By editing, I mean sawing off whole branches of our aggressive Buddleia, cutting back leggy shrubs and unwinding bind weed, endlessly. Slash and burn, horticultural style. By the time that we had...

Lies, Damned Lies, and Anton Chekhov

I watched  Imagine on the BBC the other night, Alan Yentob's reflective programme about the new memoir Salman Rushdie has written about the time he spent in enforced hiding following the Ayatollah's fatwa. The book is called Joseph Anton -- this was the pseudonym...

Writing Groups – What’s Not to Like??

During the last couple of days I've been moving into a new computer -- nightmare -- and for a twenty-four hour period it has felt as bad as moving house: all my metaphorical boxes are piled up just anyhow and I can't find where anything it is. However, I've done most...

Turn, Turn, Turn…

I'm up against a deadline today, so forgive me if my post is rather brief, but with a nip in the air and the summer on the turn, I thought this fascinating remark made by the inestimable Hilary Mantel in the Guardian on 16th of August might provide food for thought...

A Timely Timon…

I went to see the National Theatre's dazzling re-imagination of Timon of Athens last weekend. Director Nicholas Hytner has worked wonders with what has traditionally been regarded as one of Shakespeare's problem plays, bringing it radically up to date by setting it in...

On Crusade for Complex Characters

Time to raise the tone a bit, I think, so here goes... I came across this little fellow in Tournus, gateway to the south of France. St Guilhem was a ninth century fighter of Saracens, and a cousin of Charlemagne.  Apparently when he died, the church bells rang of...

Lost in Translation # 3

In this instance, probably better if it had stayed lost! I'm sorry, I know, I know, I just couldn't help myself...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # Z

Z is for...ZealHearty, persistent endeavour!  Yes! That's what you need as a writer, almost as much as you need talent and patience.  My dictionary also includes fervour in its definition and it helps if you feel this for your story and your characters...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # Y

Y is for...YarnA story, a traveller's tale, an anecdote.  Yarn.  The word has associations of length, of being something rambling and relaxed, of something oral perhaps, of something made up as it goes along. There may even be hints of exaggeration --...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # X

X is for...X-Rated With Fifty Shades of Grey still hogging the Amazon Best Sellers list and Mummy Porn the must have for every publisher as a result, my Alphabet of Better Writing would be incomplete if I didn't mention sex in it at some point. A recent bio of Louise...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # W

W is for...Warp and Weft...and weavers, who when they are working (so much alliteration), stretch one set of threads across their looms (the warp) so that a second set (the weft) can be woven through it.  When you are weaving this creates fabric, when you are...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # V

V is for...Voltaire Well, I could have done verisimilitude, or villain, or any number of other words beginning with V, but I've chosen Voltaire. A few weeks ago when I was on holiday in France, I went to visit the chateau at Cirey en Blaise. Voltaire took refuge here...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # U

U is for...Unreliable NarratorMostly, when we read a story, we take the narrative at face value.  We believe what the author is telling us, either directly in a first person narrative or through the hero or heroine in a third person one, because -- well, why...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # T

T is for...TensionTension is the sense of drama and suspense which makes your story interesting.  It has elements of excitement and compression and its function is to sustain your reader's curiosity. Your story must have some innate drama to make it interesting...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # S

S is for...Setting The setting of a story can be crucial.  It's certainly never incidental and you shouldn't underestimate the importance of it.  Apparently writer Catherine Czerkawska discovered to her dismay that publishers wouldn't take a gamble on her lovely novel...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # R

R is for...Research Write about what you know, they tell you, write about what you know.  Even if you follow this sage advice (which, incidentally, I think means write within your emotional, rather than your actual experience) let's face it, you're not going to know...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # Q

Q is for...QuestionsThere are loads of questions which, as a writer, you might ask yourself -- not least, what on earth am I doing this for? However, questions can be an extremely useful tool in helping you to tease out an idea and then fashion some kind of structure...

An Alphabet Of Better Writing # P

P is for...PastWilliam Faulkner offers this brilliant thought about the past: "The past is never dead.  It is not even past."Wow! When my brother sent me this (thanks Tom) it set all kinds of trip wires firing in my brain: how it is impossible to dissociate...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # O

O is for...Originality Some people claim that there are only seven basic plots, or four, or that all the great stories have been written and that the novel is dead in any case.  If you listen to all of that, you may as well put your pencil back in its case/shut down...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # N

N is for...Nemesis In ancient Greece the goddess Nemesis got the brief for dishing out justifiable punishment.  If lesser mortals started showing signs of arrogance (hubris), she'd be on their case delivering retribution before you could say lightning bolt ( Usain!...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # M

M is for...MessageAs a writer, your first obligation to your reader is to tell them a cracking story, of course it is, and for many writers -- and readers -- that is sufficient in itself. Focusing on the events of the narrative: this happened and then crikey! ...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # L

L is for....LengthLength for length's sake is a dreadful indulgence in a fiction writer-- if you are wodging out your work to arrive at a notional number of words, be it  eight hundred or eighty thousand, then you may be putting on unnecessary fat, when it is...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # K

K is for....Keen Keenness is a brilliant quality for a writer to have, keenness in all its manifestations and meanings.  My trusty Pocket Oxford  defines it as eager and ardent, and if you are not eager to write and ardent about your subject matter then you will face...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # J

J is for...JeopardyA writing friend of mine told me that whenever she submitted work, her editor always asked her, "Where's the jeopardy, where's the jeopardy?" and it is a legitimate -- not to say crucial - question. My trusty old Pocket Oxford Dictionary (thank you,...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # I

I is for....Interior LandscapeThere's a whole world inside a person's head -- John Keats conjures it up as a mansion with many apartments, but I prefer to think of it more as a landscape, an interior landscape. I like the impression of limitless space which this...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # H

H is for...Heartfelt William Wordsworth once said, "Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart," and I think he was on to something.  The best writing comes fresh and unmediated from the core of you, from your heart, if you like.  Sometimes it can feel as if...

An Alphabet of Better Writing – # G

G is for Genesis...I have found it incredibly helpful to have a little Book of Genesis running alongside the actual book I'm writing.  I don't formulate a strict plotline in advance, but I do make regular, detailed notes in my writing journal, I stick photos in,...

An Alphabet of Better Writing – # F

F is for...First Person Should writing in the first person be your first port of call? All of us experience life in the first person -- obviously -- so in many ways the logical point from which to tell a story should be just that, the first person, or "I". You'd think...

Betrayal – The Best Thing That Can Happen on a Saturday Afternoon

I know that in my Alphabet of Better Writing I should be tackling the letter F, but I keep getting sidetracked by literary lessons that can be learnt elsewhere.To whit - on Saturday afternoon I listened to Betrayal by Harold Pinter, dramatised on BBC Radio 4 - if you...

Real Life in Rural France – or in the Literary Margins

Found wifi - briefly - so here's a quick update. A slight deviation from my Alphabet of Better Writing, but there might be a literary lesson here in any case.We're moored up in Orconte - it's not a back water, it's the tributary to some back water, and there's a...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # E

E is for Exit...I'm back in the wilds of Burgundy, or the Haute Marne to be precise, where electricity is pretty hard to come by on the impenetrably green river banks (it's available for one hour in the morning, one hour at noon and one in the evening, if you're very,...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # C

C is for Challenge.... ...and, oh boy, is writing a challenge. It's a challenge to find the time, to find the inspiration, to stop procrastinating.  It's a challenge to dig down into the creative, tender, sensitive part of yourself that you will need to access in...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # B

B is for Back Story...In many ways beginnings are easy: you think of a dramatic moment in your story and jump in (even though it can take you a little while to find your narrative feet).  The tricky part is managing your back story. This is the information your...

An Alphabet of Better Writing # A

A is for Author....My dictionary (an old pocket Oxford belonging to my Dad, with his name written in the front) defines author as the originator of an idea or event. The word sits between authenticate (part of the writers job being to authenticate or give validity to...

True Love – Too Much Flash and Not Enough Fiction

I watched the first episode of True Love, Dominic Savage's series of five short romances filmed in Margate for the BBC. It's the televisual equivalent of flash fiction - each one is a small but perfectly formed twenty-five minutes long. The filmette was beautifully...

What’s the Most Inspiring Character Trait of All?

I think it's resilience, and I'll tell you why.I never really hit it off with Steinbeck; I tried reading The Grapes of Wrath and found it too bleak, too dusty, so I approached Winter's Bone by Daniel Woodrell with some anxiety, as both novels deal with the hopeless...

Lost in Translation # 2

Ohh, the slippery delights of language! Normally, when I'm in France and don't know how to say something, I just use the English word in my cod French accent and nine times out of  ten get by okay.  There are, however, moments when the similarities between our...

What You Can Learn from John Lanchester…

Well, loads of things, of course, he's a brilliant writer.  But having just read Capital, which is set in a single London street and anatomises the effects of the 2008 financial crisis on its inhabitants, what struck me most was the way in which he was able to...

Self-Publishing – the Surprise Revelation?

There was an interesting article in yesterday's Guardian reflecting on the survey into self (or Indie) publishing recently conducted by the Taleist web site. Taleist's founder, journalist Steven Lewis, asked one thousand and seven correspondents sixty one questions...

What’s in a Name?

For the last month I've been thinking, in increasingly less vague terms, about a new novel.  I've been scratching about at the edges of an idea, teasing out a few strands of the story, mulling over different characters, but nothing has taken flight so far: the...

An Observation about Using Observation in Creative Writing

I was on the bus the other day, whiling away the time by watching two people who were sitting side-by-side in separate pools of tiredness.  You could tell that they were both worn out, but they were worn out in different ways.  The woman was relatively...

In the Presence of Greatness

One of my earliest memories is of my mum scooping me out of the bath and swaddling me, dripping, in a towel; then sitting me on her knee and singing me Harry Belafonte songs: Brown Skin Girl, Come Back Liza and, of course, the Banana Boat Song. So because America has...

Pet Hates

If you want some "light" reading over the Jubilee weekend, it's worth spending half an hour digesting Jonathan Franzen's excellent article about autobiography in last Saturday's Guardian  I 've only just caught up with it myself and, actually, it isn't light at all,...

Language As a Precision Tool

Good writing is the living, breathing heart of a great book, and by good writing I don't necessarily mean  soaring arias of prose, although they have their place.  I mean using the fewest number of words to convey the most meaning: every phrase should carry...

Compare and Contrast

That phrase - compare and contrast - underpinned just about every A-level essay I ever wrote, it became a default way of thinking when I was a student, but in the real, grown-up world of writing fiction it's something that is easy to forget. I recently finished...

Re-Imagining Material – How to Use Research in Your Writing

The allure of an interesting doorway is very similar to  that of a gripping book; it is to me, at any rate. Both provide a portal to a vivid new world and every time I pick up a book, even a dog-eared paperback, the literary equivalent of the battered old door above,...

Characterisation — How to Read a Face

While we were in the seductive book village of Cuisery (see my previous post) we wandered into the little church of Notre Dame, originally begun in the 11th century and completed in 1504. I was stopped dead in my tracks by some beautiful frescoes in a side chapel....

Bring up the Bodies — Old Books Laid to Rest in Cuisery

As promised, here is another ravishing bookshop from the enchanting book village of Cuisery in the Saone et Loire department of France. We wandered around the ancient streets peering at irresistible doors, including the one to the 13th century chapel, with its...

What the Dickens?

Just back from hearing Claire Tomalin give a wonderfully erudite and amusing lecture about Charles Dickens, as part of Bristol's Festival of Ideas. I find it incredibly inspiring to hear writers talking about their work and Tomalin has a breathtakingly encyclopaedic...

Bookshop Heaven

Just back from a watery couple of weeks in France.  When I die and go to bookshop heaven, I believe it will look something like this... This was one of several divine bookshops in Cuisery, the French equivalent of Hay on Wye, although France has four  "book villages"...

Losing my E Book Virginity

Windswept with the weather on the Saone - wind, and then when you think it can't blow harder, more wind, making the light dance on the water.But I'm breathless with excitement anyway as I've just downloaded my first ever ebook: it had to happen sometime and today, the...

Tales from the River Bank # 1

I'm sitting overlooking an almost medieval mooring at the confluence of the rivers Saone and Doubs. I've spent the morning feeding the tiniest, new-hatched ducklings yesterday's bread, then some of today's because they were hungry. I've been hatching myself - themes...

Going fishing….

Am off to see legendary Canadian band The Sadies tonight, with their spine-tingling blend of country, psychedelic, rock and surf music. If brothers Dallas and Travis Good perform their party piece - Dallas strumming his guitar while doing the fret work on his...

Expectation is All – Or is It??

It's weird how expectations influence your experience of something.  Last week I went to see the South Downs/Browning Version double bill at the Harold Pinter Theatre in London, partly because Nicholas Farrell, whom I hugely admire, received rave notices from all...

Why Characters Should (Sometimes) Keep Their Own Counsel

Still on the theme of creative spaces, or more particularly, how you can fashion spaces in stories which both you and the reader can use creatively, having glanced at characterisation yesterday, today's small and imperfectly formed thought concerns dialogue. ...

What To Leave Out?

I think I've mentioned elsewhere in my blog (several times -- avoid repetition, Ed) that I'm interested in the gaps and spaces in a creative work; in what is alluded to, rather than what is spelt out.  This is particularly true when it comes to characterisation. To...

Writing and Therapy – A Quick PS

Here's an afterthought from my previous post. I've just been reading interviews with Edward St Aubyn as I am so enjoying his novel, Mother's Milk.  No writer could have drawn more comprehensively on their own experience than he has, so I was interested in his...

What Would Shakespeare Give Away for World Book Night?

It's Shakespeare's birthday, which gives me license to remember the dysfunctional number of times I stood at the back of the stalls of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, when standing cost 70p a ticket, dizzy with excitement at seeing Eileen Atkins play Rosalind, or Ian...

Why Losing Your Balance Can Be Good for You

Ooh, Google have changed all the templates for my blog, so that I feel as if I'm all thumbs today.  I'm in a state of cyber bewilderment and don't quite know if I'm on my head or my heels.As a writer, I know that I should hold onto this state, (although in my...

What Crap TV Can Teach Creative Writers

Following on from my last post about the seamless and subtle Twenty Twelve currently showing on BBC 2, it occurred to me that you don't have to watch excellent television if you're curious to learn how good writing is created.  You can learn just as much from...

A Master Class from Twenty Twelve

For a consummate example of how to hit a number of creative writing buttons all in a one-er, I suggest you - read Dorothea Brand's excellent book Becoming a Writer?  No, (but you should). Join an evening class? No, (but it may not be a bad idea). Work your way...

Keeping It in the Family?

I heard an excellent edition of Start the Week on Radio Four a while ago, in which Andrew Marr interviewed a number of writers - AS Byatt, Colm Toibin and Will Eaves - about authors and their families.  I guess as a writer your family of origin is the most potent...

Reading – When Once Just Isn’t Enough

There was an interesting article in The Observer last weekend, where a number of writers talked about books they had taken the trouble to read not once, but twice.  The piece was worth reading if only for a perfect image from one of my favourite authors, Geoff...

Anything but Silence – How to Use Sound in Your Writing

It's raining and I can hear the uncertain syncopation of the raindrops hitting the roof of my house-shaped shed.  It's evocative to listen to: small, staccato needle points of sound.  If I close my eyes, it takes me back to camping trips as a child: the...

Necessarye Coniunction

We're putting the finishing touches to our house, now that the builders have fled.  Downstairs, we have an interior window looking in to a little snug which doesn't get much natural light.  To remedy this we commissioned glass artist Simon Howard to make a panel for...

Characterisation — Reproducing or Creating?

When I first started writing, *drilling in the background, more shelves going up* many of the characters I wrote about were based on people that I knew.  Even if I didn't know them personally, I knew about them, in particular how they looked. To begin with,...

A Curtsey to Coetzee

OMG I've finally, at last, got round to reading Disgrace, JM Coetzee's epic account of the dirty, jagged inevitable march of justice. Respect. The gaunt narrative follows the downfall of college lecturer David Lurie, from the seduction of one of his students which he...

The Writual of the First Kiss

In a previous post I mentioned going to a talk about being a poet, given by the Royal Society of Literature. It was a fascinating evening -- I always feel breathless with excitement when I'm in the company of other writers -- perhaps it is the collective unconscious...

When the Words Won’t Come…

I am writing this sitting at my desk in my house-shaped shed, complete with roof tiles made from recycled plastic bottles. Blossom is sparking in the tangle of gardens which spills down the hill.  I can hear birdsong (and builders, shouting).  It should be perfect,...

Silence is….Any Number of Things

Am conscious of deafening silence on blog front this week -- put it down to me still being deskless, although that is all about to change as this weekend I'll be moving fully and completely into my beautiful house-shaped shed.Silence is a rich seam to mine when you...

Deviating into Deprevate

Ludicrously over excited about release today of my son Jack's first EP - check out his awesome, massively talented band Deprevate and have a listen to some soaring, pounding rock http://itunes.apple.com/gb/album/deprevate-ep/id510524553Shameless plug over .Moving into...

Top Ten Writers (Today)

Until my lovely shed is finished I'm hot-desking with my husband -- nightmare -- I'm tidy and he's NOT! So for today's blog, rather than something profound and thought-provoking, I'm having to resort to a list.Here are the ten writers I most admire (at the moment,...

The Autobiography in your Book Shelves

There's only one Steve left now, doing the snagging - the ten thousand little jobs that need finishing off before the work is done.  It's a bit like copy editing your book: all your editor's notes have been minutely attended to and you think the whole thing's done and...

In Praise of Phrasing

We've been listening to Lambchop all weekend and it's not just Kurt Wagner's haunting voice, his haunting voice, which I can't get out of my head, it's his supple phrasing.  It doesn't just give texture to his music, it gives it drama, as well.There's a lesson to...

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