The other night I was watching The Rewrite, in which a Hollywood scriptwriter reluctantly becomes a writing teacher. In the early part of the film he asserts that writing can’t be taught.
In some ways, I agree.
But wait, you might say. And you might brandish a kettle at me, or a pot as black as night. What, Ms Morris, are you doing here? On your blogs, in your seminars, with your nifty tips and nailing books?
Well, I hope I’m being useful, but it’s interesting to consider how much of a writer is made by what is taught, and how much is … something else.
You do the work
No matter how many courses you take or books you read, they won’t build your facility for you. You’re the one playing the instrument, and you need years of practice and exploration. The fabled 10,000 hours to achieve mastery, if we’re to believe Malcolm Gladwell.
Actually, at two hours every day, that’s 13 and a half years – which may not be encouraging to know. But this figure does perhaps explain why some characters doubt the use of teaching when it comes to making writers. Indeed Stephen King says in On Writing: ‘to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot’. And: ‘the most valuable lessons of all are the ones you teach yourself’.
Time for T
Dare we mention the T-word? Talent? There, it’s said. What might talent be?
I guess we could call it the qualities that can’t be taught. Imagination, a grace with the written word, the tuning of mind and soul that sees unique significance and connections.
We should add the disposition to persist for 10,000 hours (or however much it might actually be) – because talent will only last so far. Before Picasso could have a blue period, he learned to draw properly so he knew what he was doing to his audience. Then he could mess around all he wanted.
So what am I doing here?
A writing teacher can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear. We can’t do the work for you. In that case, what am I teaching?
1 Awareness – of how stories work on the intellect and heart, the invisible tricks that writers use, some of which they’re probably not aware of.
2 Methodology – ways to cope with the difficulties when we’re out of ideas, disappointed with our work. And how to organise the tons of material we have, changes of heart, brainwaves for new directions.
3 Critical thinking in ways that are helpful rather than destructive.
4 Ways to discover what we should be writing, and how to fulfil our distinctive potential.
5 The joy of creativity, of the pursuit of craftsmanship, the respect and wonder of what we can do with printed marks or pixels. I will always be amazed how prose seems infinitely richer than photographs or film. A great piece of writing is worth a thousand pictures.
6 We’re also sharing our own curiosity. I’m first a writer, then a teacher. I’m on my own odyssey with another ornery book and it’s nice to talk to those who understand.
Oh, and in case you missed it, the limited-edition box set is now live. But it’s vanishing in May.
Over to you. Can writing be taught? What aspects of writing can’t be? What do you learn from writing teachers? If you’re a writing teacher, what do you teach?
How do we label ourselves as writers? Guest spot at Dan Holloway – and the box set is available NOW!
Forgive the capitals in the title. That’s the problem of being in a group of seven, rather excited writers who’ve been working towards this moment since November. Our ebook collection, Outside The Box: Women Writing Women, went live yesterday. If you pre-ordered it, it will have arrived on your ereader. If pre-orders aren’t your thing, you can grab it right now, because it vanishes on May 24. Oh, and it’s seven full-length novels, so clear a weekend or seven.
We’re getting coverage all over the place, including the UK national press. (This is why the release is such a moment of relief and excitement.) But today I want to highlight a particularly thoughtful, searching interview put together by Dan Holloway. He’s asked tricky questions:
Is this collection a marketing idea, a political statement or both? What are our common threads (aside from the possession of two X chromosomes)? Do they help us come up with a ‘label’ for our diverse range of books? What should that label be? Do labels in fiction cause problems? What about the position of women writers in literary fiction? And, my own favourite: is it better for writers to be ambitious and fall short, or to succeed on more limited terms?
It’s a good discussion. Do come over.
And once again, this is our ensemble. And we are very excited.
My guest this week brings a real blast of the 1980s, with a bright red emphasis on romance (I guess it’s that time of year). She drew on the soundtrack of her adolescent years to create the love-torn characters in her novel, and the heart of the story beats to George Michael, Berlin and Patrick Swayze. She is Audrina Lane and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Does your plot have enough going on? I see a lot of manuscripts where the story seems to lack momentum, or the characters are spinning their wheels doing not very much of anything. But the funny thing is, the writer isn’t short of ideas. They’ve simply not realised where they are hiding.
Today I’m at KM Weiland’s blog, with 4 places to find the ideas that are right under your nose.
And while we’re at it, let’s discuss: have you discovered your plot ideas were hiding in plain sight?
At school, I wrote science fiction stories because it made my teachers supremely annoyed. That probably set me up well for my attempts to get an agent or a publisher, when I annoyed with stories that bent and mixed genres. And why not, when it was good enough for Atwood, Banks and Ballard? And the magic realists?
Today I’m at the blog of Jane Davis, one of my co-writers in the Outside The Box collection, answering questions about what I write and why, and how self-publishing began for me as a last resort and became the most positive step I’d ever taken. How times change, you might say – but we also discuss whether self-publishers are truly gaining more legitimacy or whether there is further to go. I think the latter. There are still barriers and indie authors are still treated discourteously.
Did I really use the word ‘discourteously’? I did. Do come over.
My guest this week says she was a singer long before she was a writer, and when she started writing, music was a natural place to find story inspiration. She writes a series of novels based around the members of a book club, and many of the titles and characters come from tracks that have been special to her. I took unashamed pleasure in seeing Icicle Works and Peter Gabriel make an appearance – the latter with Sinead O’Connor (gasp). And one of her books was inspired by a track by Indigo Girls, which talks about reincarnation and the soul reinventing – possibly a familiar idea to longtime visitors here. Anyway, she is award-winning journalist and contemporary women’s fiction author Karen Wojcik Berner and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
In a recent episode of So You Want To Be A Writer, my co-host, bookseller Peter Snell, asked a great question. What makes dialogue sound awkward, unnatural or ‘wrong’?
In the manuscripts I see, there are four main reasons.
1 Trying to say everything in dialogue
Sometimes we get so focused on making characters talk that we forget to let them perform non-verbally, especially if they are shocked or surprised.
Speech is only one part of dialogue. Writers often don’t realise they can use silence, pauses, thoughtful expressions, gulps, gasps of laughter. Instead, they try to put the character’s reaction into words, but this can sound false because many people don’t verbalise if they are reacting strongly. Indeed, they might be robbed of their words.
If a character has been highly amused, don’t make them say how funny something was; let them laugh. If they’re horribly upset, don’t force them to translate that into speech unless this is one of their personality quirks. I’ve seen many an awkward dialogue moment when writers have made their character say ‘No, please no’, when a gesture or a facial expression would be the natural response. Pauses and reactions can be just as eloquent as speech, especially to demonstrate when a remark has had an impact.
2 Including too many banalities
Sometimes, writers stuff their scenes with inconsequential dialogue. Encounters with postmen, neighbours, waiters, flight attendants and others are narrated in their entirety:
You all right?
Yes, thank you, how are you?
Did you come a long way?
Yes, but the motorway was clear so it only took me a couple of hours….
Oh snore. An exchange like this would be normal in real life, and probably in a TV or film script. Indeed it might go on for much longer. But on the page, even the briefest amount of chit-chat soon racks up a lot of lines and draws attention to itself.
If you’ve got a sequence like this, consider why you’re showing it. Is it to make the scene more lifelike? Does the content of it matter? Could you condense it and show just enough to establish that the characters greeted each other, then get on with stuff that will keep the reader’s attention?
Although it would be strange if characters never said anything inconsequential, we need to strike a balance. A few lines go a long way:
Your Chablis, sir.’
Do sit down.’
This same problem arises when major characters have downtime. For instance, they meet for a casual day out. Because they are major characters the writer feels they have to record every sentence. Was the train ride all right, is the fish good, where shall we have coffee, isn’t the weather awful. Let’s go into the cheese shop, and nod as the owner recommends the Brie. Crikey, will anything happen that’s worth talking about?
As always, writers need to examine what the reader should take away. Is it closer knowledge of the people and their relationship? Is it a change or a deepening bond? Pointless chat won’t show this, so delve deeper. Use subtext to explore the boundaries being pushed and adjusted. Maybe your scene is not as edgy as that and the characters are simply enjoying their day. In that case, lose the dull details and bring out the enjoyment. A little trivia is authentic, of course. But use inconsequential dialogue sparingly – and keep your focus on the real purpose of a scene.
This is the easiest dialogue problem to spot. Obviously characters have to explain stuff to each other from time to time. And exposition isn’t always bad – indeed, a novel with none might be incomprehensible. But often it’s mishandled and the number one way is in scenes where characters explain something they don’t need to talk about.
As you know, when you and I arrived on this planet three weeks ago and found there was no one at the base…’
So how do you give the reader background information? Simple: find a reason why the characters discuss it. Or write it in the narration, just as you might handle back story or description. But don’t contrive a scene where the characters explain it to each other.
4 Trying to be too idiosyncratic with accents and other speech characteristics
We want our characters to sound distinct and to speak with their own voices. But sometimes writers attempt to replicate accents and dialects, using odd spellings and dropped syllables. Phonetic and mutilated language slows the reader and might throw them out of the story. It can be comic, of course, and more so if other characters also struggle to understand. But it’s just as likely the reader will skip those bits, especially if the rest of the prose is conventional and easy.
If you need to draw attention to a character’s distinctive speech and you want us to read it, tics are best kept to a minimum. You can remind us of it indirectly:
He heard the Scots burr in her voice.
Of course, a novel is its own special world. Your quirks might enrich the speech of the people you invent. It might make glorious sense if your gangsters posture in iambic pentameter, your infants sound inscrutably academic and schoolteachers mumble in monosyllables. But these effects are the result of a conscious style choice.
Certainly we should make our characters distinct, but this should come from their personalities and personal styles. This can come through vocabulary, word choice and sentence rhythms. University-educated characters might think in elegant sub-clauses. Streetwise bruisers might have one plain idea per sentence. With all those devices, you hardly need phonetics.
There’s an entire section on dialogue tips in Writing Characters Who’ll Keep Readers Captivated: Nail Your Novel.
Do you have problems making dialogue sound authentic and natural? Do you have any tips for overcoming them, or have you had to learn some unexpected tricks when working with an editor? Are there any writers whose dialogue you particularly admire – or can’t abide, and why? Let’s, er, talk about it…
My guest this week is one of those many writers who values silence – but is keenly aware that music is influencing what comes out on the page. She describes how music acts as a portal, letting her access moods and mental states in order to recreate them faithfully in her fiction. She describes trying to capture a state of longing and nostalgia, but without sentimentality and the soundtrack she shares here is such a treat: a Gershwin cover by Kate Bush; a Purcell lament sung by Alison Moyet. If you follow my show on Surrey Hills Radio you might hear me finding an excuse to give them airplay sometime soon. Anyway, this imaginative guest is wartime romance author Davina Blake (who also writes historical novels as Deborah Swift), and she’s on the Red Blog with her Undercover Soundtrack.
Misusing back story is one of the most common problems I see as an editor. Writers bury their best events in the back story, and then struggle to think up enough spectacular ideas for the main narrative. Or they rely on secret, past wounds instead of character development. Or they set up secret traumas that are never used in the forward action. Lastly, they heap all the back story into the beginning of the book, stalling the action – the famous back story dump.
But back story is also important. It lets you write with authority. And there are moments when you can play it out and deeply enrich your readers’ experience. So how can you wield back story with panache?
Hop along to Jane’s blog to find out.
A conversation on Twitter about online writing groups made me remember I had this post, written nearly 4 years ago. I tweeted it and got so many messages about it I thought it might be worth an official rerun. So – if you’ve been with this blog since 2011 you might have a sense of deja vu. If not …. I hope this is useful.
I’ve had this email from Vanessa, which is a fairly common problem.
During the past 12 months, I rewrote my novel 8 times as part of a critique group, and now I’m wondering if I should just go back to my first draft and start over. My book is different now, in some ways better, in some ways worse. I’m not even sure I can work with it in its present, 8th incarnation. I’m feeling a bit discouraged and don’t know how to recapture the original freshness. I think there are some good changes in the revisions, but also a lot of bad direction. How will I sort through it?
Discounting the fact that some of the advice might be misguided, inept or even destructive, even the most accomplished critiquers will offer different approaches when they spot a problem. You get a lot of input and you don’t know which to ignore. You try to knit them into a coherent whole and then realise you’re lost. And the idea is worn to shreds.
A brainstorming draft
If you’re feeling like Vanessa is, you have to see this as is a brainstorming draft. It’s full of other people’s solutions – some good for your book and some a bad fit.
A learning draft
It is also a learning draft – in it you learned how to sketch a character, how to show instead of tell, how to introduce back story without clogging the pipes, how to pace. You could almost view some of it as exercises that have helped you to write better – but some of those exercises will not be pieces that need to be in this book.
Now you will undoubtedly be more practised and more aware. You need to take control of this brainstorming/apprenticeship draft and make a novel out of it again.
As a BTW: one thing you find as you grow as a writer is that other people’s solutions are rarely right for you. You have to pay close attention to the problem they have identified rather than what they tell you to do. If lots of people are saying something is wrong it probably is. But their solution is probably not right for you, even if they’re an accomplished writer.
Get back to your vision of your book
First of all, have you had a break from the novel? Here’s how you can tell. Do you view most of the manuscript as a problem? If you read it through right now would you be beating yourself up for what’s not going right?
Put it away so that you can read it without wanting to have a row with it.
When you’re ready, don’t read that latest version. Find the material from before the crit group, when it was just you and your idea. I always advise authors to keep their first draft because although there will be much to blush about, there will also be glorious tumbles of inspiration. What can vanish after multiple revisions is the raw inspiration and even if you didn’t express it well when you first wrote it down, the spirit of it is usually there.
Read through this and enjoy your original idea. Look out for the interesting edges that have been smoothed away and make a file of them.
Now to your manuscript
Then read the latest version. Make a copy so you can mess about with it. Paste into a new file the sections that your gut wants to keep and that you feel are an improvement on what went before. Clip away those you feel don’t belong – but don’t junk them because they may be useful later or for another book. Don’t try to rework anything yet – just examine what’s already there.
Any sections you don’t mind about either way should stay in the original file. You now have 4 files:
- 1 initial gems with rough edges
- 2 gems from the reworked version
- 3 don’t-minds
- 4 rejects.
File 2 is your new essentials for this story. Now work out where the gaps are and how you’re going to join the dots. Yes it’s very much slimmer than the draft file, but it’s what you like about the book, in concentrate. Look at file 1 and consider how to add its contents in. Look at your ‘don’t mind’ file and figure out if you could work up any of the elements to fit with the new vision. From this you’ll build a new book that you do like from a draft you’re ratty about.
If you’re going to play with the story order a lot, you might find it useful to play the cards game from Nail Your Novel. If you’re not going to reorder you don’t have to worry about this.
Feedback is essential, of course, but you can get lost. This especially happens if you’re feeling your way, as first-time novelists are. While you have been writing with group feedback you have been putting the controls as much in their hands as your own. Now you’ve grown up a little, you have to close the doors, get to know the novel again and plan how you’re going to do justice to it.
Have you had experience revising with critique groups? And what would you tell Vanessa? Share in the comments
Thanks for the pic Hugo 90 on flickr
More about handling critiques and drastic edits in Nail Your Novel: Why Writers Abandon Books and how you can Draft, Fix and Finish With Confidence