‘A space in which language can play and find itself’ – talking about slow discovery writing with poet Rishi Dastidar @BetaRish
In some ways, writers of literary fiction (and non-fiction) are like poets. Our materials are shapes, images, emotions and sounds; our landscape is a reader’s mind. When we start a work, we might not know where it will take us, just that there is something it wants to be. I’m delighted to have a poet here to talk about that – Rishi Dastidar, who has written two poetry collections and edited several more. He has also edited a craft guide for poets. We talk about capturing ideas without killing them, and how a process can turn a fragment of nonsense into something original, sophisticated and surprising.
Let’s start with a quick guide to Rishi.
Over-caffeinated writer for hire, residing in south London, with a penchant for supporting less-than-successful sports teams, who when not wielding a pen for brands or art tries to keep two cats happy.
How poetry start for you?
I started writing in 2007, after a chance encounter with Ashes for Breakfast, by Durs Grünbein, translated by Michael Hofmann. I had a damascene moment if that isn’t too grand – I discovered *the* thing I wanted to write. Now, I had no idea that I could write it (I hadn’t studied literature) so I enrolled in a beginner’s course at City Lit that week, and I’ve been plugging away ever since.
You’re the editor of The Craft: A Guide to Making Poetry Happen in the 21st Century – tell me about that.
That was at the instigation of my editor at Nine Arches Press, Jane Commane. She’s been publishing a series of handbooks for poets, designed to inspire and provide support on the journey to becoming a poet – a journey without a destination if ever there was one, perhaps. We felt there was space for a book for those who had been writing for a while and wanted to go deeper into writing poetry, and to consider issues of ‘craft’.
‘Craft’ in inverted commas?
It is quite a loaded term. What is it? Who is defining it? Why is it important? Why is it important to the person defining it? The word has been used, sometimes subconsciously, sometimes not, as a form of soft gatekeeping, that hard-to-speak-of space where quality and elitism are hard to tell apart.
We wanted to explore that in the book, as well as technical aspects of different forms: how to maximise the potential of your voice; how to bring digital technology to your poems if you want; the ethics of truth-telling and using real life in your work… providing poets with insights into the ‘craft’ that go beyond thinking about pentameter, but rather the full gamut of what you have to think about to make your work the best it can possibly be. The real joy of the book was commissioning essays from so many writers I love and look up to, then getting the heck out of the way as they delivered their wisdom.
You have two collections of poetry Ticker-tape from 2017 and Saffron Jack from 2020. What unifies each collection?
It’s hard, at least initially, to discern much unity between the two. Ticker-tape is more of a debut collection with all its unevenness and flaws, to go with its brio and energy. Saffron Jack can be a read as a long poem about one man’s attempt to set up his own country as a response to feeling alienated from where he is. There’s a third in the works, which will hopefully arrive in 2023.
I suppose what brings everything together is a style, or more precisely a tone. It’s one that’s quite antic, not that many moments for pauses or calm reflections. I generally try to cram my lyrics with a lot – that slightly uncomfortable feeling of the poem teetering on the edge of falling out of coherence. Neologisms abound: I’m a magpie for picking up and throwing in phrases that look and sound like jargon, and then seeing what happens when you put them in a poetic context.
Tell me more about that.
I like taking language from economics, advertising, politics and seeing what happens when you bend them out of shape. Does it reveal there is something more substantial to them? Can you find the thought that might have animated them? What does that reveal?
I’m aware that makes me sound like I live at my desk and behind my screen. While that is mostly true, there’s generally always something that snares me when I’m out walking through London. I’m very urban in that regard. The city leaks into everything I write.
How does a poem come to you?
I generally wait and see what a phrase starts to suggest to me. I’ll capture something that snags me: a hesitant attempt at describing an image; something stolen from an article, a headline, overheard; some mucking around with different words on my desk. Then I hope that something starts to cohere and make… I was about to type ‘sense’, and that’s not quite right, as I’m not necessarily interested in a sense of logic, but rather a sense of suggestiveness.
For example, I have the phrase right now ‘cardinal reminiscence bump’ in front of me on my desk. To others, I know this will appear meaningless babble. To me, I see *something* in that formulation: perhaps the hurt that a difficult memory brings back, perhaps the primary thing that I was meant to remember today; perhaps what it feels like to meet an past lover for the first time in 11 years. The point being: something around the phrase is inviting me to explore, delve further, find out what it might be saying to me.
I get that. The tweak in the soul, a primal sense of meaning.
Of course, not every poem – especially commissions – arrives like that, but broadly speaking I have to try to hold open a space in which language can play and start to find itself. I can then just be the recorder of it, at least in the early drafts. The more it gets whipped into shape, the more it bears some imprint that is recognisably me.
You’re obviously a person who travels with a notebook (or e-notebook)… but a note can look alien later. When I work with an idea I often feel I’m catching up with something that wants me to understand it, and sometimes its moment goes cold. How do you write down ideas to preserve their energy?
I actually don’t mind the alien-ness of looking at my scribbles. Sometimes reading them is enough to take me back to the moment and the energy that was there when the phrase was captured; more often than not it’s not… and that’s okay. Hopefully the phrase will suggest *something* and I’m not so concerned what that something is – I need it to reveal itself as I work, bring it together with other scribbles, say, then see what is released in those juxtapositions and collisions. I generally trust that something new will emerge from the process, and new is good for me; I can work with that, make it better.
I’m interested in the similarities of writing literary fiction and poetry, especially the long process of refining and perfecting, which I relish. Sometimes that’s about mechanics – giving the reader necessary information such as back story or character reactions. Sometimes it’s tuning the moment in a particular way. All of it is feeling the way to guide the reader’s mind. I’ll go through a scene hundreds of times when the book is rough, and in the later stages, as I understand the book as a whole, I will probably change it many more times again. Yet I never feel that work is wasted or that I’m draining the book of life. And there comes a time when it’s all done – and I know it is. I can read the whole thing and it works as it should.
Yes, absolutely. Frustratingly, I haven’t developed very sophisticated language to describe what this stage of drafting a poem is like for me. My best stab is to say, to myself and others: trust your Spidey sense.
There is a very real risk that you can overwork a poem into inertness, and that would destroy the thing that makes my poems my poems, the innate sense of energy. Of course, I’ve had to train my Spidey sense over the years, and learn to trust to it, to know when the 17th draft is a charm, but the 18th has killed the poem.
And that makes it sound like work when of course it’s not – there is absolutely a pleasure to be had in this kind of puzzle solving.
Puzzle solving! Yes.
Cutting a word to sharpen an image, changing a line ending to release a different sound or idea.
To release a different sound or idea… yes, that’s the reward. When you’ve found the right tuning.
You will almost definitely see different things on different passes, so you should allow the time for this part of the process. Poems have to live in the dark, of the bottom of desk drawers, maturing, until they tug at you, wanting to be seen again, tweaked a bit more. But then you have to intervene and tell them they’re ready, otherwise they never will be.
When you hand a collection to an editor, how does the process work?
I’m very fortunate to have been working with Jane at Nine Arches for a while now, as she gets completely whatever I’m trying to do with my voice and within any given book project.
How does one edit poetry? What kind of notes would an editor give?
You can think of it as working on two levels.
First the higher one: what is the collection trying to do? Are the right poems there to do that? What order do they need to go in to do that? Have you left enough space for the reader to bring themselves into the worlds you are creating?
Generally you have more poems than you need or some aren’t ready, so a lot of is it leaving stuff on the cutting room floor and then re-arranging. I trust Jane implicitly, as she has an excellent ability to spot the poems I haven’t yet accepted aren’t ready, though I know deep down.
And the second level?
That’s the micro-work on the poems themselves. Are your titles right? Is your syntax secure? Are your rhymes subtle or clanging, by intention rather than by accident? Is your punctuation in the right place? How do the poems sound when you read them out and they hit the air? Are your line endings surprising?
This is your second mention of line endings. In prose, I pay a lot of attention to line endings; the thought a sentence lands on, where that takes the reader next.
If the previous process was the sledgehammer, this is the scalpel – fine-grained fine-tuning which, if you do it well enough, should be all but invisible to the reader.
Invisible to the reader – that’s it. I once heard Michael Caine talk about his work process. He was asked how he gave such relaxed performances. He said: ‘the rehearsal is the work; the performance is the relaxation’. (I wrote about it here.)
And you definitely need outside help at this point, as you will have been looking at them for so long, you won’t be able to spot the faults.
How do you improve your own craft?
Boring cliche answer, but cliches have that boring habit of bring true:
First, reading – as much as I can, of any stripe style or hue. Rare is the weekend that I am not in a bookshop at some point, and I have to-be-read bookcases rather than piles. And it’s not just poetry: I think poets can learn from the rhythms of prose.
I do the other way round. I keep poetry volumes on my desk to loosen up my thinking, stop me being too literal.
I also love immersing myself in a narrative, not least because it remains a thing of wonder to me that anyone can write 50,000 words of a story and make it coherent and make sense.
The second element is experimenting – consciously trying to change things up and get out of a rut.
I hope you’ll give examples…
Can I edit this draft harder?
Can I edit this draft weirder?
What can I change to make it feel still me but not me?
What forms haven’t I tried yet? Why? Can I run towards them?
I’m finding that I need to develop that sort of intentionality to keep things fresh and shake things up. I’m writing a lot of prose gobbets at the moment, short bursts of 100-200 words. Will all the experiments work? No, but in trying I’ll find something new.
As a change of gear, you’re also a copywriter, journalist and brand strategist. Many of us have day jobs that use our word talents – I edit on a medical magazine. It’s factual, precise and pragmatic. I find there are curious ways this refreshes my creative work – unexpected sources of inspiration from the ‘real’ world, of course, but also the practicality is a good antidote to the limitless possibilities of creativity. How do your other areas of work complement your work as a poet?
Hugely: primarily at a level of discipline. I have to finish a response to a client brief by a deadline, so I can’t hang around waiting for inspiration. So I have learned to be directed in my thinking and my messing around; leaving enough space to be broad in exploring before narrowing in on what the answer might be, and doing so rapidly.
I’ve got good at knowing how to fill gaps, and that translates into a level of confidence in knowing that I can get from A to B in a poem and make it look like I know what I’m doing, even if perhaps I don’t at anything other than a subconscious level.
Also, being in the world of brands and branding is good for seeing how cultural trends, commercial decisions and organisations collide with each other. You get to see how the modern world is shaped. More than that, you get lots of insight into humans and their motivations: what people are buying, what people are wishing for, how they’re collaborating with each other, how they’re interacting with technology, how they are working. Being able to observe – and sometimes influence – some of that has been a real privilege, and must have leached into what I write about. It’s certainly more interesting than my life as a subject matter.
What should I ask you next?
Why do I have so many baseball caps, and why can’t I have a more rock-and-roll mid-life crisis?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I recently asked an artist what his dream job would be. He then bounced the question back to me. ‘What would your dream be as a writer? What would you wish for? What would your dream writing job be?’
Let me think. Is Succession hiring?
Seriously, the writing I most want to do is my own books. I’m always fighting for the time to work on them, fitting them around other gigs and commissions. And, with the time they take, they certainly aren’t paid at professional rates, but the rewards of art are a complex thing. (You might like this post if you want to consider those questions further.)
What if my own books could be properly funded, instead of squeezed into gaps? If I could get an advance or a sponsor, perhaps through crowdfunding?
I don’t think that would be my dream. My books are unpredictable in timescale. Not the Nail Your Novels; I know what they need before I start, so can reasonably finish in a few months. Not Quite Lost, my travel memoir, was also swift. But Ever Rest was glacial; seven years, between other commissions. Lifeform Three took two years, and I don’t know how I managed that. My Memories of a Future Life took a lot of apprentice drafts several decades ago, which don’t count because I wouldn’t start in such a muddle today, then it spent several years in infuriating disorder, then came right in a four-month blitz.
What sponsor could tolerate such a haphazard production timescale? I wouldn’t ask them to.
If I knew people were waiting for delivery, would I feel obliged to finish faster and less thoroughly? I probably would. I hate to disappoint.
On the other hand, would these novels have been finished faster if I’d had an uninterrupted run?
Perhaps, but here’s another question. Did they need the other work I was doing in parallel? The book comes from the soil it was grown in, the weather around it. Different soil, different weather? Different book. And some books need time to muck about and grow up.
Although a patron would be an amazing stroke of luck (and if you want to be one, I’m all ears…), most of us get our books out anyway. We always have.
But while we write on a mysterious self-directed solitary mission, a book is not a solitary thing. All our perfectionist angst, our multiple edits, our discussions with beta readers, our careful reworking has one purpose – we are creating with the idea of the eventual reader, their journey and experience.
Writers are not monks in a contemplative order, separated from people and the world. We are reaching out. We are illusionists, assembling a longform work of magic. A novel – or a piece of poetry or creative non-fiction – is built to be performed. It is dead unless it comes alive in other minds.
To do all that work, and nobody reads it? That really makes writing a lonely business.
There’s my wish. That my books are read.
What would you wish for?
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
‘I just keep making things’ – Melanie Faith @writer_faith on patience, fulfilment and the long game in art
How do you make a professional creative life? Melanie Faith is the person to ask. She’s adept in many written forms – poetry, flash fiction and longform. She’s also an expert on the teaching side with her work as a writing professor, editor and tutor. And her creative proficiency extends into the visual world – her photographs have been included in exhibitions and used on book covers. Now, over the past few months, she’s published a series of how-to guides for all these disciplines – so there’s loads I want to ask her.
First things first: where did this creative ethic come from? Her family, perhaps?
My family is working class, but they are all makers and creative problem solvers. There are dressmakers, toymakers, jewellery makers, masons and house builders, knitters, gardeners and cooks. They are resourceful in applying trial-and-error, working around obstacles and using whatever few materials they have to create something more than the sum of the parts. Their can-do practicality and inventiveness have influenced me for sure.
Personally, I’ve been encouraged over the years by writing teachers and professors and beta readers who gave thoughtful critiques. Also, my family and friends who asked how it was going and my parents for encouraging my goals. And by books I’ve read, and authors I’ve studied.
I try to run with all of the opportunities that I’ve been fortunate enough to have – like internet publishing and a university education.
How did you move beyond private dabblings to the point where you said, I am a writer, an artist, a poet, a photographer, a teacher?
What I love about the arts is that we can spend our whole lives practising, always discovering things about self and media and always seeking to improve.
I don’t have one big end goal; I have myriad little project ideas that I want to enjoy—some fall to the wayside, others stick but don’t create a splash, and others resonate with fellow writers. I just keep making things.
Did you study any of them formally?
Yes, I have a BA in English with a concentration in professional writing and an MFA in creative writing with a concentration in poetry. I loved the knowledge and writing practice I gained from both degrees. The years to focus on consistently making art for critique and forming community were priceless, too.
The cost was the only part I didn’t enjoy: even though I had academic scholarships and contributions from my parents and I worked part-time jobs during my education, I was still paying off lots of student loans for years on both degrees, which is a familiar story for many of the creative artists I know.
Have you done jobs that were unconnected to your creative work?
Like most writers and artists I know, I’ve had a variety of jobs over the years, including an early gig as a choir-music librarian. I worked in an attic-garret office, mostly on my own, alphabetising and cataloguing boxes of sheet music. It was a self-paced, methodical, time-to-think kind of job that replenished my introverted self. I took classes and had time to write before or after work.
Most of my other jobs were in various subjects and levels of education, such as teaching English as a Second Language (ESL) at summer camps.
You’ve recently published a trio of books on writing and publishing, all with Vine Leaves Press. Two are for writing teachers – Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells. The other is From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process , which has just been released. Why those books, and why now?
I wrote them to share what I have learned and to encourage fellow writers. For all writers and teachers, myself included, rejection is a realistic and discouraging part of the vocation, so if I can provide kind words and insights to keep other writers going, that is fulfilling.
Plus, the reflections were meaningful to write. I aimed to bring something personal to each topic as well as something that might inspire readers to apply the knowledge. I wrote the second and third books during the early days of quarantine, so the writing became a positive and wonderful escape in the grip of much confusion.
You’ve also written craft books on poetry and flash fiction, also from Vine Leaves Press. How did they come about?
For years, I had nudges of encouragement from students who’d suggest I should write craft books, but I didn’t feel confident about it. I remember sitting down to write what I thought would be a craft article to submit to a literary journal, and realised, Hmm, this might be something longer. I saved the file, worked on shorter projects, and then a week or two later, more and more ideas for a flash fiction craft book occurred to me.
Is there a common mistake writers make with these forms?
They send work to one or two editors or markets and, after rejection, think it’s unpublishable. But it’s very common to get persistent rejections before a yes; some of my favourite published work received eight, 10, 20 or more rejections. I encourage writers to keep submitting rejected work while writing new projects.
Also, taking classes and getting feedback from other writers or beta readers builds a community and gives writers more tools to revisit pieces with new skills that enliven and strengthen the work.
Also, it’s helpful to realise that not every piece of art we create needs to be published—some can be just for ourselves or just for fun or to develop our skills. As much as I’ve published, I have a bunch of work nobody else will ever read. They were projects that got me to the projects that did reach an audience. Patience and the long game are important in art.
And you’ve written a creative guide to photography for writers.
I don’t have any special training in photography (other than two or three online non-credit classes for fun). It took me decades to have the confidence to call myself a ‘photographer’, and that was after several publications of my photos.
I’ve always had a passion for photography, although not always the money to practise the art as much as I’d like. In many ways, I feel similarly alive and happy and intrigued when making a photograph as I do when writing.
The idea for the book was sparked when I wanted to teach a class that combined photography with writing. I looked for a class text that combined photography tips from a writer’s unique skillset and couldn’t find it. Something inside me lit up.I felt there was an audience for the book, because many writers I know have either dabbled in or studied photography, and also great cellphone and digital cameras have dropped in price and increased in quality, so more people can explore photography at their own price-point.
Tell me about your own photographic work. Your pictures have featured on book covers and in online exhibitions. How did that come about?
I submit a wide variety of photographic subjects (from abstract to nature and landscape to conceptual photography of people to still-life photos), and often I’m surprised at the pieces that make the cut and the others that don’t. Many times, I’ve read calls for submissions for thematic photos or exhibits or literary journals asking for art and decided to send work on a whim. About 75% of my photos are rejected. The acceptances, though, are well worth it. You never know what others will connect to, which is one of the marvellous things about art of any kind.
Make what you consider your best work, and then release it to see what others will make of it, without too many expectations.
On the other hand, my photographs that have gotten published or exhibited have had similar qualities: an unexpected angle, a very detailed or, conversely, a mysteriously blurred element, elements of characterization of a place or a person, sometimes a saturated or unique colour combination, and a wild card element, like unique subject matter.
As with my writing, I often follow my own ‘Hmmm, that’s interesting’ or ‘I want to know more about that idea’ moments.
You’ve combined the visual and the written arts in a set of prompt cards for writers, which you sell on Etsy. What gave you the idea to create those?
I love using prompts in my teaching and writing. I love the idea of a set of cards that writers can carry as a light, tactile object so that, while waiting for an appointment or at a park or on a lunch break, they can use slivers of time to make art in a low-key, self-directed, no-pressure way. As a freelance editor, writer, and teacher, my schedule is ever in flux, so I use tiny snippets of time to keep my writing process cooking.
Let’s talk about your own creative writing. You have a collection of poetry, This Passing Fever, 1918 Influenza Poems, which was also adapted for a music performance. And you have two chapbooks of poetry.
I wrote This Passing Fever several years before the Covid pandemic. At the time, like many people, I didn’t think we’d ever experience a pandemic ourselves. The collection follows the lives of several characters in a small town during the pandemic over a hundred years ago—some survive and some don’t. Many of the poems are persona poems and the POV shifts from poem to poem, back and forth between characters. It was a meaningful series of characters and time period to explore, even more meaningful to me now.
What are you working on at the moment? I believe there’s a disobedient novel in progress…
That’s so funny. Very true. During the first weeks of quarantine, I started a novel about two sculptors who are also teachers who met in grad school and reunite in 2018 as very different people. The story alternates POV and time periods in non-chronological order. I’ve taken the manuscript through two or three solid drafts so far, but there’s a lot more to explore and more creative editing to do. This summer, I look forward to delving back in, and also to working on more photographs and two poetry collections, one of which is set in the early 1960s.
But you’re already published as a novelist, with a Regency novella under a pseudonym, Lucy M Loxley.
I started the Regency novella during a fan-fiction exercise in 2015. I chose to write in the style of Jane Austen. I just kept writing to see where the story went, and then I had a novella, so I decided to see if it could be published. Happily, it was.
Why did you choose a different identity for that book?
It’s in a genre (romance) that is not my primary genre, and there is a tradition in romance for authors to take pseudonyms.
Why that name?
At the time of writing the novella, I was streaming a show called Mr Selfridge, and one of my favourite characters is Lady Mae Loxley. I love the double L alliteration, so I chose another name I like that has a strong L sound, Lucy, and combined them. The M middle initial is a wink to Mae and my real first name.
What have I forgotten to mention? I’m all awhirl with your creativity and I’m sure I’ve missed something.
These have been such excellent questions that inspired me to dig deep! Many thanks. I can’t think of anything you’ve forgotten.
Some quick-fire questions.
Writing or rewriting?
Writing for the discovery, but more time in rewriting than my younger self would have enjoyed.
Write in silence or listening to music?
Both, and it depends on the project. First drafts I usually create to music, but editing my work often requires at least some silence.
Five essential things in your writing space?
A profusion of pens in every hue imaginable, a postcard a writing friend took the time to snail-mail with a writing quote on it, a photo of my nieces (they are ever-growing and changing, and they inspire those qualities in me), my computer, my tactile writer’s notebook with a jumble of to-do lists and ideas/random thoughts as they monkey-mind around and before they disappear.
What would you buy for your writing space if money was no object?
A Leica camera. They are famous and pricey. It would be a very generous splurge that would be fun to create with! Where’s that money tree again?
Find Melanie’s most recent trio of writing books here Writing It Real: Creating an Online Creative-Writing Class for Fun and Profit, Writing It Real: Crafting a Reference Book that Sells, From Promising to Published: A Multi-Genre, Insider’s Guide to the Publication Process.
There’s a lot more about writing in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
The push-pull in a person’s soul – how to keep readers desperately hooked. Interview with Mary Kole @Kid_Lit
Mary Kole has long been a legend in my online writing life. I’ve followed her since I first ventured onto the internet of writing, when she was a literary agent and wrote one of the smartest blogs about storytelling. Now she has a podcast for writers – as well as a consultancy – and I was massively chuffed when she invited me to guest.
We had a huge, wide-ranging chat about storycraft which boiled down to this – what keeps the reader hooked? Could we identify any qualities that work for any kind of story – no matter what the genre, even in the absence of a clear genre?
Reader, we did. (See the headline to this post.)
We talk about identifying the core of a story – because most ideas start as an intriguing muddle. They lead us and frustrate us, and for a long time we might not know where we’re going – just that this idea is eating our brain, directing us to books we might not usually read, movies we might not usually choose to watch. We also talk about small but vital aspects of craft – pacing, word shapes, learning from other writers, change in a story and when to give the reader a breather.
We talk about coaching writers – the art of wriggling inside an author’s mind to help them create the book they really want, even if they’re not clear what that is. And about ghostwriting – another kind of mind-reading, with the added challenge of absorbing another person’s experience to write the book they’d write if they could. (Did you know I have a course for ghostwriters?)
We’re editors too, so we talk about switching hats from writer brain to editor brain – and the great big interzone where the two overlap.
You can listen to us talk about all this and more, or if you prefer to read, there’s a full transcript. Step this way.
Do you write shortform? I have two opportunities for you.
If your forte is piercingly, wincingly, blazingly short, the 50 Give or Take series from Vine Leaves Press wants your work. The editor is my friend Elaina Battista-Parsons.
Does Elaina sound familiar? You’re right. She came to my blog to talk about her memoir Italian Bones In The Snow.
If 50 words is too tight and you like to be thoughtful at greater length, Elaina still wants your goodness. She’s also an editor at Cordelia Magazine.
Go here to her blog and follow the trails.
Elaina also invited me for a brief chat about my writing, my favourite music, my favourite decade and advice for new writers. In the same post she featured the work of pop musicologist Quentin Harrison, and that’s an inspired pairing – Quentin has a series of books (Record Redux) on pop icons, explored through their songs, and I mainlined books on bands when I wrote my novel Ever Rest. We were destined to meet.
As you might know, I’m fond of horses. For years I’ve been taking dressage lessons, with mixed results. One instructor used to yell at me: ‘you ride without feeling what the horse is doing’, but I recently started with a new instructor, who told me, to my surprise, that I had very good feel.
Here’s where this is relevant to writing – writers also need to develop feel. It’s how we know when our work is finished.
And to return to the saddle for a moment, how could I get two such contradictory opinions? Who was right?
Both were. Because, actually, I was ‘feeling’ all the time. I was noticing everything I should, but I didn’t know I was feeling anything important.
Applying this to writing, I remember – distinctly – a time when my writing turned a corner, when I learned to take notice of gut feeling. If a line was off, or a word was not precise or evocative enough. If a story moment was dull or predictable or wrong. If a passage was self-indulgent or a scene went on too long. I realised I had always felt and noticed these things, but I had not known I should trust them and act on them. The ‘feel’ was there. It had been all along. I just had to listen.
When we’re learning something – anything – a lot of it is mechanics and rules and principles. For writing, we learn what plot structure is, what character arcs are, show not tell, how to plant a theme, how to add subtext, how to present dialogue.
But alongside those technicalities there is another level, a more individual, inspirational level, which holds a work together.
This comes from deep in you, from the way you’re wired. If you listen to it, it’s where you develop your distinctiveness, your aesthetic, your style. It’s not learned, it’s already there. There’s craft, which is an exoskeleton, and then there is soul, which is how you are in your deep interior, a human being alive with questions and mysteries and curiosities. It’s how you have always been.
What should you learn to listen for? Here are some suggestions.
- Is that word or line perfect for the feeling you want to give the reader? Sometimes, I go to the thesaurus and read lists of synonyms until I find the word that fits more truly.
- Is that plot development or character action a little awkward? What should you change – the event? Or should you explore more deeply the characters’ reasons, both conscious and unconscious? Do you feel they’re doing the right thing, but you haven’t yet understood the reasons?
- Is the pace dragging and do you want that? When you read a scene, does it seem to repeat a previous story beat, and is that irritating to you or pleasing?
- Is something missing? Will the piece – or the book – flow better with an extra paragraph, an extra scene, an extra chapter? If you reorder some of the scenes, will everything click into place?
These are gut-level judgements, but if you learn to listen for them, they will start to speak up. You will start to write more by feel, and use your craft with originality, style and sensitivity. Listen also, for when the piece runs smoothly, when you can read a passage or a chapter – or the whole book – and feel everything is just right, just so.
PS If horses are your thing, you might like my novel Lifeform Three.
PPS My novel Ever Rest has won an award! See the pic below.
There’s a lot more about writing technicalities – and gut feeling – in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Jobs that give you time to be who you need to be: how I made my writing career – Ian M Rogers @iantheroge
How do you fund creative work if your natural niche is not a high earner? Ian Rogers is the guy to ask. He’s done a variety of odd jobs that allowed him headspace to write a series of mischievous pseudo self-help pamphlets and a full-length work of experimental fiction released last week, titled MFA Thesis Novel. Meanwhile, he exploits his word-fu to the full, editing academic papers and business texts, and teaching English as a foreign language. How creative people sustain their careers is a long-term interest of his – which led to his blog, But I Also Have a Day Job.
Ian, how did writing start for you?
A lot of writers start interviews like this one by saying they were writing passionately from a young age, and if you count a handful of elementary school stories and stick-figure comics, I guess I was too.
When I was young I gravitated more toward different forms of storytelling: acting out imaginary stories at recess, narrating into a tape recorder, making my younger brothers laugh.
Have you done other arts?
I did a lot of acting in high school, and for a while I dreamed of doing stand-up comedy, but I never took serious steps toward either. Around college, writing—and novels specifically—naturally emerged from that experimentation as the method of telling stories that was most accessible to me. It was the method I understood the best after nearly two decades of reading books.
Were your family in the arts?
If making ridiculous jokes around the dinner table counts as an art form, my family were experts. As far as the more traditional arts, though, not at all, and no one in my family understood how one made a career in that. My parents encouraged me to follow the path I wanted regardless of what it was. I think to my parents, saying I wanted to be a writer was the same as saying I wanted to be a plumber or investment banker—it was just one path out of many, and didn’t come with any connotations, positive or negative.
You have a blog titled But I Also Have a Day Job. It’s a situation most people working in the arts would recognise. How did this blog come about?
After I finished my creative writing master’s at the University of Nebraska I was processing a lot of mental overload about my next steps. I was working on the MFA Thesis Novel manuscript and trying to pitch an earlier novel based on my time living in Japan, and the easiest way to earn money during that time was an incredibly laid-back job in a greenhouse on the university’s agriculture campus. The job mostly consisted of filling pots and mixing chemicals while hanging out with cool international students, and when I finished in the afternoons I found myself with plenty of energy to come home and write—far more energy than I’d had as a grad student, where I was teaching classes, doing homework and attending department talks.
The Day Job blog grew out of this idea that having a mindless job that required very little energy and caused zero stress was the perfect way to earn bill-paying money when you’re primarily interested in doing your own creative work. The writing program I’d just finished was the exact opposite of that—it stressed that if you wanted to write you had to enter this cut-throat academic world where the competition for professor jobs was fierce and most opportunities came in the form of poorly paid adjunct positions with little job security. With the Day Job blog, I wanted to explore the possibility of finding different career paths, and the various ways writers and other creative people handle these very practical concerns.
Are all the interviewees writers?
I try to host a balance of writers and people working in other creative fields—for instance, Krissy Diggs, who’s an Instagram illustrator, Jeff Gill, who’s an animator and producer on the Netflix show Ask the Storybots, and Miranda Reeder, who writes, draws and programs visual novels.
Are there any useful generalisations you can make about creative careers?
One thing I’ve found is that while the specifics of different creative fields vary widely, the paths to building any kind of creative career involve a lot of uncertainty, a lot of working less-than-ideal jobs while you transition, a lot of networking, and a lot of night and weekend work.
I think a lot of writers make the mistake of only looking to other writers for career guidance, whereas there are plenty of other models they could be borrowing from. My hope is that by looking at these stories of how different creative people become successful, creative people in all fields can get ideas and inspiration about how to build their own careers.
What is your day job now?
In January I finished a second stint of teaching English in Japan—first elementary school, then at a university in Yokohama. Most of my income now comes from editing, writing coaching, and teaching private video lessons in English as a foreign language. It’s a good routine because I can set my own hours, I don’t have to answer to a boss, and most importantly, I can write in the morning while my mind is fresh.
Your website mentions you’ve done a lot of odd jobs. How successful were they for you?
The greenhouse job was probably the most successful in terms of freeing my mind and time for creative work, and I probably would have kept it if it hadn’t involved staying in Nebraska.
All of my other jobs came with one problem or another: before grad school I worked as a school secretary, but the pay was low, the workload neverending, and the environment toxic. For a while I graded standardized test essays online, but it got too monotonous. After that I picked up a job listing electronics for an online store, but I left after I discovered that the boss was breaking tax law and cheating employees out of overtime pay. I didn’t want to be associated with a work environment where other workers were being exploited.
Tell me about MFA Thesis Novel.
Much like Day Job, MFA Thesis Novel grew out of my grad school experiences in Nebraska. The novel I was workshopping was about life in Japan, a topic the other grad students knew nothing about, and it used a lot of experimental techniques I was drawn to after years of reading the 20th century modernist writers. No one around me was doing any of that, and the program was centred in more contemporary fiction, especially fiction with a rural bent. I still had a lot of craft-developing to do, but the people around me usually rejected the literary moves I was making rather than trying to understand them, which felt confusing and hurtful, but most of all, limiting.
In my grad school workshops we always talked about conflict, and it occurred to me that grad school itself was a perfect setting for conflict—work that didn’t fit the mould was being criticized, people were lonely in this strange, conservative university environment, and everyone was aiming for these high-paying tenure-track English jobs that were disappearing because universities weren’t funding them any more. MFA Thesis Novel naturally emerged from these conflicts, along with my love of campus comedies like Lucky Jim and Joseph Heller’s A Portrait of an Artist, As an Old Man, which merges narration and novels-within-the-novel in a way that’s both poignant and incredibly silly.
Why that title? It’s quite brave…
The title was inspired by a Broadway musical I’d seen a few years back called [title of show] in brackets. It’s a comedy musical about two guys trying to write a comedy musical, and the audience watches them bumble through the process. I loved the metafictional concept and wanted to play with that in MFA Thesis Novel, which is also about the writing process and finding your voice as an artist.
How long was your novel in progress?
Too long! I wrote the first draft over nine months while I was working in the greenhouse in Nebraska, then took two-plus years to revise it while I was working more mentally demanding jobs after moving back to New Hampshire. In the process of writing MFA Thesis Novel and the novel I’m working on now, I’ve realised how difficult it really is to make progress on a novel when you’re working a day job, commuting, and trying to build an online presence as a writer, not to mention making time for hobbies, family, and—wait for it—sleep.
Do you have an MFA yourself?
My creative writing degree is actually an MA (don’t tell anyone), though research and more than a few late-night grad student conversations have revealed that my experience was comparable to any number of the hundreds of MFA programs in the US. My own department was at a huge R1 school that prized research and had a lot of creative writing PhDs, as well as a lot of students in literature and composition and rhetoric, which led to its more academic bent.
Was it useful to you?
It was. Aside from the time to write and hone my craft, I learned a lot about the world of literary agents, publishing and small presses, which were largely a mystery. Equally important, though, were the connections and work experience, which launched me in a whole new direction after graduation. I did internships with the department literary journal and the university press, taught a year of freshman composition, got my first paid editing jobs, and took an amazing class about copyright law and how publishing contracts work. Plus, of course, the experience gave me a cool idea for a novel.
You also have a set of zines, The Erochikan Zines, which satirise how-to pamphlets and corporate culture. Are these a reaction to situations you’ve worked in?
The Erochikan zines satirise work, but they also shine a spotlight on basic human interactions that to me feel broken, like how passive-aggressive put-downs are considered socially acceptable, or how we subtly pressure one another away from making changes in our lives. I thought, what if there was an evil corporation intentionally teaching people how to act this way—how would they make these abhorrent behaviours seem attractive?
Does that indicate a rebellious streak in your soul?
Ha! ‘Rebellious’ is a word I usually associate with teenagers who cut class and carve their initials in bathroom stalls. I prefer to describe myself as someone who points out the absurdity in the world we all live in and isn’t afraid to speak the truth. I’ve always found satire to be extraordinarily powerful in how it can show us bigger truths about society in ways that have real entertainment value while also being more thoughtful than, say, sarcastic Twitter memes.
The name Erochikan comes from the Japanese words ero, a shortening of the English word “erotic,” and chikan, a pervert who gropes women on crowded subway trains.
The Japanese have a word for that? They think of everything.
Speaking of words, you’re an editor too, with a broad set of skills – academic papers and business materials as well as the more creative side of writing – and, of course, English as a foreign language. How did you get that spread of experience?
That greenhouse job I keep mentioning actually started as an editing job cleaning up agricultural research manuscripts written by second-language speakers from India. I knew nothing about farming, but it gave me a lot of experience both in line editing and in working with dense academic writing in specialised fields I didn’t have a background in. My boss was good about recommending me to his colleagues, and I picked up other gigs editing social science and architecture manuscripts. If clients like you, they tend to use you again and pass on your info, which helped bring in different kinds of jobs, especially ones that involve coaching or talking through ideas over Zoom. Transferring those skills to working with fiction writers felt natural because I could integrate my teaching background and my writing experience, so it’s been especially rewarding to work with fiction writers as they hone their craft.
Your novel contains autobiographical material. Would you ever write a memoir?
While I’ve read a few excellent memoirs that played with form and structure in ways I found fascinating, I doubt anyone wants to read about my childhood playing Sonic the Hedgehog and having sleepovers with my friends. Aside from traditional memoir, one of my goals is to turn But I Also Have a Day Job into a nonfiction book about how creative people build careers. The book would be part research, part my own experience, and part experiences of people I’ve interviewed—a road map to the creative life.
That sounds like an excellent idea. Okay, here are some quick-fire questions.
Wordcounts or not?
In my own writing? Hell no—solving one really different problem for me is more valuable than 10,000 mediocre words I’ll have to edit out later.
Travel or stay at home?
I’m constantly torn between both—when I lived in Japan I was in travel mode, but for now I gravitate more toward staying at home and getting work done.
Fast or slow reader?
Slow—I tend to pause and process ideas as I read.
How did you end up a complete expert on the George Michael song ‘Careless Whisper’?
I had a chance to join this cool podcast called Blanketing Covers with Danny Getz and Jon Trainor. Every episode they choose a song or artist and look at the dozens of artists across the world who’ve covered them. They gave me a few options, and ‘Careless Whisper’ jumped right out. I take guilty pleasure in all the soft rock songs that my mom would listen to on the radio in the early 90s, and I’ve given the protagonist of my new novel a similar fondness.
Oh wise editor, what’s a word you always mis-spell?
Disappointed, recommend—any word with two sets of letters that could be doubled.
There’s a lot more about writing technicalities in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
Literary and historical novelists – your first pages: 5 more book openings critiqued by @agentpete @mattschodcnews and me!
I’ve just guested again at Litopia, the online writers’ colony and community. Each week they have a YouTube show, Pop-Up Submissions, where five manuscripts are read and critiqued live on air by literary agent Peter Cox @agentpete and a guest, or sometimes two. This time the other guest was one of Litopia’s longtime members, Matt Schofield, an award-winning war correspondent who now writes fiction.
The format is simple. Five manuscripts, each with a short blurb. We hear the opening pages, then discuss how they’re working – exactly as agents and commissioning editors would consider a submission. And there’s now an added goody – each month, the submission with the most votes is fast tracked to the independent publisher Head of Zeus, and several writers have already been picked up after appearing on the show. (So we take our critiquing very seriously… no pressure.)
As you can see, there is oodles to learn from the chat room comments alone. The audience might not always know why something does or doesn’t work, but they know when they’re engaged, or confused, or eager to read more. Then your trusty hosts discuss the whys and hows.
This time the submissions had a theme – literary and historical, so in our discussions we aimed to define the characteristics of these. We discussed how literary blurbs are not like genre blurbs, and how a blurb can create the wrong impression about a book or give away too much. We discussed how you might create a coherent literary work out of a story with many points of view. We looked at how an author might unify a novel by setting it in a short space of time or a particular geographical place. We identified a fantastic example of showing instead of telling.
We considered openings that were thematically effective but seemed to need a more human centre. We considered titles – the risks of using a name as a title, and a title that gave the wrong message about the tone of the book. We also discussed awkward phrasing – which led us to identify another hallmark of literary work, the author’s control of language and nuance.
We also discussed Matt’s own fiction, which is emerging – in various guises – from his phenomenal experiences reporting on four wars. How do you make real life into fiction? What about transitioning from journalism to fiction writing – are there stylistic habits that journalists have to unlearn? (Spoiler: yes there are…)
There’s a lot more about beginnings and genre/non-genre notes in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.
I’m aware the title of this blogpost might sound like old-fogey nagging, but it has a serious point. And, to reassure you, the cure is easy.
We learn storytelling from just about anything, and much of it without realising. TV and movies are a huge part of our lives and while they’re great teachers for some aspects, they’re not so good for others.
There are several common issues I see in novel manuscripts where the writer is thinking with TV/movie brain. So here’s how to reboot your prose brain.
Problem: lack of description
The writer doesn’t set up the scene with description. In a movie or TV show, the scene-setting isn’t dwelt on, so it doesn’t get noticed. It comes alongside the action and dialogue. However, prose needs to take deliberate extra beats to create the environment because the reader can’t see what’s around the characters. If we don’t show this, it creates a peculiar effect, like being blindfolded. I’ve read manuscripts where I thought the character was confined to one room in a kind of blank mind-jail, when actually he was staying in a nice hotel.
Some writers load the description at the start of the scene, then fail to keep it in the reader’s mind. They concentrate on the characters’ spoken lines and actions, but don’t keep the environment alive. This is disorientating for the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Readers need their inner vision to be fed – and their inner hearing too. Think of a radio play – it’s quite obvious there how the scene is ‘decorated’. If the characters are in a café, there might be a spoon chinking against a mug, a low hum of chatter from other customers. You barely notice it because it’s going on at the same time as the foregrounded action, but it’s been deliberately added to make the scene lifelike. There might be one or two moments where a character interacts with the environment in an aside – in the café they might make a remark about the cake they’re trying to resist.
And that’s how you keep the environment alive in a prose scene. Use it as part of the action. If a character’s sitting at a desk, they could tap their finger on it while thinking about what to say next. Make them react to it too – like the character longing for cake.
Use anything physical to bring the scene alive. What about their clothes? If a character is wearing a ballgown, the skirt material might rustle as they shift position.
Problem: lack of background about the viewpoint characters
I see quite a lot of manuscripts where we aren’t told enough about the viewpoint character. We see them doing things, but we don’t know who they are, where they are, why they are there, how old they are – and this isn’t a deliberate artistic choice. Although we don’t want to overload the reader with the characters’ life stories, there are certain things we simply can’t work out.
In a movie or TV show, we get all this at a glance. In prose, we need to be told.
Reboot your prose brain Make yourself a checklist – ensure you sneak this information in somehow. Have you let us know your character’s life circumstances? How old they are? How successful? How healthy? How happy? What relationships they have? All these details provide important context.
Problem: lack of interiority and reaction
In movies and TV, we usually can’t get inside a viewpoint character’s mind. So if something happens that provokes a reaction, we have to see it expressed – physically or verbally. But if this is how you show reactions in prose, it looks quite empty. But prose has a delightful quality that some writers underuse – it can put us inside the character’s mind and heart.
Reboot your prose brain If your narrative style allows, remember you can let the reader experience the reaction in the character’s mind and heart. Don’t just show it on the outside with facial expressions and dialogue. You have a whole other register for communication – your viewpoint character’s thoughts and feelings.
There are many possible ways a character could react to a plot event – you have to specify those reactions! Furthermore, you can show the complexity of the people you’ve created. You can explore mixed feelings and unexpected responses.
But what if you want to be economical and let the reader fill the gaps from their knowledge of the context? Yes, you can do that – but you have to teach the reader about the character first. So in the early part of the story you show the reader that, for instance, a character is secretly in love with another character. Much later, you can show the character being rejected and you might not need to show the devastation this will cause – the reader will know. But if you’ve never taught the reader what emotion a character feels about a thing or another person… the reader won’t know.
Don’t forget to go inside a viewpoint character’s reaction.
Problem: dialogue lacks an interior dimension
This is similar to the previous point. TV and movie dialogue does a lot with the characters’ actions or tone of voice. A writer might attempt to describe these in a dialogue scene – so we get reactions, gestures and expressions, but they might not mean a lot to the reader.
Reboot your prose brain Gestures and expressions can certainly be useful, but they’re not the most effective way to help the reader understand what the characters are feeling. Use interiority as well, as above.
Problem: dialogue has too many mundanities
TV and movie dialogue often has a lot of warm-up. Hello, how was your journey, sit over there, I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on, I was up at four this morning because the bairn wouldn’t sleep.
This human noise is necessary because we’re following the action in real time, it looks natural, and we’re also settling in for the real meat of the scene – perhaps seeing relationships, an environment (see my first point), getting a sense of anticipation. The actors’ actual words are quite mundane, but we’re not meant to be paying much attention to them.
However, this mundane dialogue doesn’t work so well in prose. I see a lot of scenes in novels that go:
‘Hello, how was your journey?’
‘I’ll take your coat, let me put the kettle on.’
‘Oh, thank you, I need caffeine, I’ve been up since four because…’
That’s four whole lines of not very much.
Of course, there are situations where this might be valuable – if there is something interesting for the reader to notice. For instance, if you’ve laid the ground for the reader to interpret awkwardness or tension, or to be very curious about every moment of this encounter. But many writers do this just to get a scene under way, because that’s how TV does it.
Reboot your prose brain Although you need some of this, and scene setting is important, you don’t need nearly as much as a TV or movie script would. You certainly don’t need to follow every step in real time – an artful condensing will work just as well. Use it, as I’ve said, if there is something the reader will enjoy noticing. Otherwise, pare down as much as possible.
Don’t just learn your storytelling from films and TV! Keep reading prose as well, to keep in practice with that medium – so you give the reader the best possible experience.
There’s a lot more about this in my Nail Your Novel books – find them here. If you’re curious about my own work, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s going on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.