Category Archives: A Writer’s Life

Beyond the First Draft: the re-write

We all have our own creative process. What I am sharing here is what works for me, it might not work for you. I understand some writers re-write as they go along. For me, this is like trying to go forward in reverse gear. It may be different for you. Experiment for yourself. However, if you are re-writing as you go along, just take a moment to reflect. Are you self-sabotaging by making sure you will never finish anything, by continually going over and over the same section of writing trying to get it perfect? Are you squashing your creativity? Many of my most creative ideas quite frankly look pants when first committed to paper. My first impulse would be to re-write them out. But left to ‘stew’ and then crafted, they become something else.

‘I do a lot of rubbish, you have to work through the rubbish. If you are doing rubbish you can’t go away and say, OK, I’ll come back when I’m cleverer because it doesn’t work like that.’
Author, Judith Kerr (‘Pink Rabbits and Other Animals’
Radio 4, 14th June 2018, producer/presenter Jessica Treen)

So this is my method:

  • Write a first draft, relatively quickly, with no looking back. For me this is joyous, I am only pleasing myself and playing with words and ideas and characters.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder (always value your writing by keeping it safe and well shod).
  • Re-read. Try to put on a reader’s head at this point. For poetry you might be looking at rhythm, word choice, consistency of images, form on the page, voice. Would a stranger understand it or, at least, take some meaning from it? For prose, perhaps ask yourself about the narrative arc, research, narrative voice, character development, conflict/crisis, pace. Write notes for yourself on the manuscript, on a separate sheet, at 3am in the morning.
  • Re-write using your comments.
  • Leave it for several weeks in a nice folder.
  • Second re-read which might lead to some re-writing, but don’t over do it until you have some feedback. You don’t want to ‘bake’ your ‘cake’ until you’ve got some input on the ‘ingredients’. Many a time I’ve been asked to give feedback on a piece which the writer considers finished and is unlikely to alter. It’s a waste of time and energy for the both of us. Choose your readers carefully. For me, they should be writers or intelligent readers, people whose judgement I trust. Ask your readers specific questions, pointing them at the parts you want to work on and protecting the bits you know (in your heart of hearts) you will never change. Ask for positive feedback as well as a critique. Your readers should not be proofreading (unless your writing is unreadable because of grammatical or spelling errors). Proofreading comes right at the end of the process.
  • Read your feedback, then put it away for several weeks and read it again. Remember to thank your readers and buy them tea and cake (or similar). Make a list of the parts of your work which you are going to work on. Re-write. Re-read.
  • At this point you could well be ready to self-publish or submit. If you are self-publishing, and can afford it, pay for a copy editor and a proof reader. If you have to choose, pay the proof reader, it’s nigh on impossible to proof read your own work. If you are submitting, you can probably do your own proof read, and the copy editing will come once your manuscript is accepted.

Here is some further advice from author Lisa O’Donnell on the Curtis Brown Creative site: https://bit.ly/2OBR4Pw

I believe in my method. However, there are times when needs must. I am submitting a novella to the Mslexia competition and the deadline is the 1st of October. I am re-writing as I go and I can smell the burning of crunching gears.

What’s your advice for re-writing?

Expressing the Inexpressible

‘By finding some way of crafting an experience, constructing a structure to create a door to let other people in so they can walk into your experience and call it theirs and, in the business of doing this, it gives you somewhere to go with it. It’s almost like telling a story back to yourself. Often the more traumatised we are, the more we’ll tell the story or else we’ll be completely silent. Writing is one of the ways of expressing the inexpressible.’
Jackie Kay on Desert Island Discs, 23rd October 2016. She was asked how she got through her difficult encounter with her birth father (as described in Red Dust Road).

The weather has certainly turned in our little seaside town. Summer is dissolving into memories:

Swimming in a waterfall, Northern Italy, July 2018

 

Swiss mountain, July 2018

For the last four years I have come into a phase of my life which the doctors call peri-menopausal. Eighteen years ago I went through a devastating bout of depression. I have found a way of talking and writing about this, I have found a narrative for it which is acceptable to me and (pretty much) acceptable to those around me. I am struggling to find a way to write about what is going on for me now. To express the inexpressible. This is because it involves a lot of blood, an awful lot of blood, coming from my womb and this is considered not a nice thing to talk about. However, for the last four years I have had on-going problems of heavy bleeding which has caused anaemia, I have had headaches which feel like a chisel is being hammered into my right temple and which are immune to painkillers, I have lost control of my body ‘thermostat’ so I overheat leaving me feeling faint and slightly nauseous. I cannot go anywhere now without considering my stock of sanitary products and what access I will have to toilet facilities.

Upset by reading this? Try living it….

On August 1st I had my womb scraped out with a laser during an endometrial ablation. For several weeks after I felt exhausted and very, very low. The bleeding has not stopped. So the narrative I am trying to construct has no neat ending.

I am untidy. I am no longer neat.
A faucet jammed on. I leak.

Angry? You bet. Upset? Sure. And massively de-motivated, especially around my writing. This has not been helped by another brush with the traditional publishing industry which initially was wonderfully encouraging and positive. It looked like, just maybe, my thirty-year ambition of having a novel traditionally published could come to fruition. Of course, not, how could I have been so deluded? Don’t tell me it could still happen, because it won’t. And holding onto a hopeless hope is one of the worst things I can do for my creativity.

As with many other aspects of life, we only hear from the ‘winners’. There are many, many writers and creative souls who do not ‘make it’ in conventional terms (get the publishing deals, get the readers, get the reviews, get the acclaim). If you are going to be a writer you have to decide you will do it for the love, for the pleasure, because it keeps you sane, because it distracts you… For any reason which is about you and not about interfacing with an audience of any kind. I know this. I have known this for thirty years. Sometimes I get enticed into a fantasy where this is not true and it takes an awful lot of energy and effort to drag me out to reality again.

So how to pull myself out of this difficult place. Firstly, I am attempting to be compassionate to myself and kind to my body. Secondly, I am trying out new things, learning new skills, especially in arenas where I do not feel judged. Thirdly, I am slowly, slowly coming back to my writing. Over the last few weeks I have drafted up some of the short stories I discovered lingering in my writing journal (see previous post) and have put a draft structure into a non-fiction project I have around writing, walking and memoir. In the next few weeks I will take up my novel again, re-reading it and intending to find a way to move forward with it.

But I don’t want to leave this blog on a low point – for me or for the reader. So let’s forget for a moment the blood, the pain and the disappointment. Let’s recall an enchanting memory: swimming in the Swiss lake with the mountains all around and the sun sliding up from behind the peaks.

The Writing Journal

Writing in my journal by a Norwegian lake

I have been keeping writing journals for over ten years now and recently I spent many happy hours reviewing them. The result is a list of ideas and kernels of pieces of writing which should keep me going for the next ten years!

I’ve been writing since I was 19, so I’ve had the habit of writing regularly for over thirty years. oftentimes in notebooks and/or in diaries. I didn’t commit to the idea of a writing journal until I returned to the UK after a spell working abroad for an anti-poverty non-profit. In many ways, I can see the commitment to my writing journal as also a commitment to accepting myself as a writer – rather than waiting for some kind of external ratification of me as a writer. I began to say (when asked) ‘I am a writer’. I dedicated time and space to writing and further developing my craft, even though there was little endorsement from the publishing industry.

During the last ten years I have taught creative writing (for the University of Hull) and run numerous workshops. The first thing I always encourage people to do is to start keeping a writing journal. For me, this is a special notebook. It is 15 by 21 cms, so relatively portable. It has no lines to cramp my writing into going in a particular direction or being of a particular size. The paper is relatively thick (the notebooks I use are sold as sketch books) which means I can sketch if I like, use watercolour pencils and oil pastels and stick things in without spoiling the page surfaces for writing. I date every entry. Entries might include: very personal reflections on how I am feeling or what I’ve been doing; musings on being a writer; scrappy thoughts on writing pieces to be developed; beginnings, middles, ends (in no particular order); observations on the world around me; quotes; poetry (written by others and me); images such as postcards; cuttings from newspapers and magazines; bits of information gleaned from the TV, the internet, radio, other people….

I am wedded to a writing journal and hand-writing. It works for me. I do believe there is something exceptional about ‘free writing’ – which I have written about elsewhere eg writing the therapeutic journey – done with a pen. I think it is a way of unearthing what is below the surface of conscious thought and of circumventing the many ‘shoulds’ and ‘oughts’ which a lot of us carry around.

However, I could see for other people a writing journal might be, for example, a folder on the computer; a box file; or a filing cabinet drawer. The main thing is that it should only be used for gathering inspirations for writing, it should be added to regularly and that it should be away from prying/judging eyes.

Over time the writing journal will become a treasure trove to be mined, especially, but not only, when a writer is feeling depleted and de-motivated.

I am currently reading Deborah Levy’s essay Things I don’t Want to Know. I was charmed to find her mentioning her writing journal. She notes how descriptions she had written of the cabin crew on a LOT fight to Poland in the late 1980s ‘morphed into nurses from Odessa’ in a novel she was to write a decade later.

Nothing written in a writing journal is ever lost, it will always pop up somewhere or become a scaffold for some piece of creative work.

Which is why, whenever I am asked by someone about where to start with writing I suggest a journal. If a person can commit to writing in one of those habitually, then there is a chance they will realise their ambition of writing stories or poetry or a novel or a non-fiction book or even a series of blog posts.

What is your experiences of keeping a writing journal?

Memoir

This is not where it starts….
I have always enjoyed reading biographies and allowing life to inspire my fiction writing, but recently I have begun to explore more deeply what might loosely be termed life-writing.

Biography, autobiography and memoir are all developing forms which intersect and interweave. Here are some of the aspects I’ve noticed in my recent reading. Firstly, the biographer coming more prominently into the biography. There is often an explanation about why the subject of the biography was chosen and about the connections between the lives of biographer and subject. It is probable, in my opinion, that knowingly or unknowingly a biographer chooses a subject which holds up some kind of mirror to the biographer’s own experiences.

Technically a memoir focuses onto a contained aspect/theme within (rather than the whole of) a life, and the autobiography does the opposite. It’s occurred to me at this moment that I don’t actually read a lot of autobiographies. This genre appears cluttered by those from celebrities which can err on the sycophantic and name-dropping. Memoir on the other hand seems to be more open to the quirky and the off-beat. It also strides hand in hand with nature writing, travelogues and books about walks and journeys, which feeds into other interests of mine (see posts: https://bit.ly/2sEHamp & https://bit.ly/2JGfZyD).

A recent article in The Guardian by Alex Clark (23rd June 2018) suggests there is a new genre of autofiction. This purports to do two things:

  • bring the writer’s life into a novel.
  • Disrupt the idea of narrative and realism in the novel form. For example, by playing around with the narrative voice and the timeline and by speaking directly to the reader (thus making obvious the artifice of the novel).

I’m not convinced either of these are new, but perhaps putting them together is. Clark mentions in particular Crudo by Olivia Laing and Rachel Cusk’s Kudos. Clark suggests this ‘new’ approach to novel writing is trying to ‘find a new way to describe reality at a time when, as Kathy says in Crudo, it is “hard to talk about truth” and perhaps even harder to write it.’ As well as attempting to echo the ‘now’ of social media and also its propensity to encourage its users to ‘present’ an image of themselves.

Clark also suggests autofiction ‘speaks to the idea that to capture 21st-century experience writers must breach borders – blend fiction, memoir, history, poetry, the visual and performing arts.’

This is where it starts….
I’ve recently read Charlotte by David Foenkinos, a novel based on the life of the artist Charlotte Salomon. It is written in narrative verse, quite terse and without the descriptive passages which punctuate most novels. It took a while to get used to, but in the end I found it very moving. Charlotte herself created her own autobiography, Life? Or Theatre?, an artwork of over seven hundred scenes mixing images and text. It finishes with the words, ‘I was all the characters in my play. I learned to walk all the paths. And in that way I became myself.’

As she knew she was about to be picked up by the Nazis, Charlotte handed over her artwork in a suitcase to a doctor who had helped her. As she did so, she said, ‘It is my whole life.’ The suitcase was not opened until after the Second World War ended. Charlotte was killed in 1943 aged twenty-six within an hour of arriving at Auschwitz.

I think maybe Salomon knew about autofiction before the rest of us.

Or maybe it starts here….
A sculpted pair of arms made of bronze in a glass case in an art gallery in a small seaside town and the accompanying explanatory label. This led me to read A Great Task of Happiness. The life of Kathleen Scott by Louisa Young. Or a painting in another provincial art gallery of a woman of Asian origin, who was both goddaughter to Queen Victoria and a suffragette. This led me to read Sophia: princess, suffragette, revolutionary by Anita Anand.

Maybe this is where all writing starts…. curiosity.

Meanwhile here is a memoir by a fifty-three year old woman:

 

Nature Writing: Initial thoughts

 

West coast of scotland

Walking the West Coast of Scotland. Research is Experiencing.

Whether it is canoeing single-handedly down the Niger to Timbuktu, or walking the Pennine Way in the ‘wrong’ direction, or exploring loss on the Camino de Santiago, or following in the footsteps of dead poets, or training a goshawk, nature writing appears to be in its prime.

 

In an article in The Guardian published in March 2015, Jamie Doward, argued that nature writing is the vogue, the ‘new’ literary phenomenon. He suggested that the recent trend is for nature writing to move away from descriptions and facts about the environment towards meditations on consumption, on finding more meaningful ways of living and on the values of our current society. He questioned whether the genre has moved too far away from being about the natural world.

The definition of the genre of nature writing includes anything from field guides to human attempts to engage with wildlife to voyages of discovery such as those mentioned above. However, it seems, we humans inevitably end up writing about ourselves; the natural world becoming a reflection of our own preoccupations or emotional state. As ever, humans find the most intriguing story to be about themselves.

We don’t all have the capacity or the time to set off on grand adventures. But we can become inspired by roaming through our own patch of nature. It doesn’t have to be expansive, or particularly wild, to fire the imagination.woodslakesJune16

Five tips for nature writing:

  •       Engage with nature, open our senses and our observational capacities to what is around us. Walk mindfully.
  •       Be curious about everything.
  •       Research – good researching is experiencing not just reading about a subject.
  •       Read examples of the genre. Good writers are good readers.
  •       Move from the specific of our own experience to a general mediation or reflection. In general, the idea is that nature has something to teach us.
  •       Have a sufficient grasp of the facts in order to be able to be relatively knowledgeable about plant life, animals, social and geological history.
  •       There’s no need to romanticise, it is the grit which creates the pearl.

 

Exploring Creative Non-fiction

For various reasons, these several weeks I am not focusing on my novels. So I have been playing around with ideas which lie more in the ‘creative non-fiction’ category. I’ve always written (and had published) non-fiction pieces and have even strayed into academic non-fiction with various research articles and my book Pathways through writing blocks in the academic environment (https://bit.ly/2HC5xvd).

This time I’ve been doing a lot of meandering around topics such as: walking, nature and writing; the body and writing; and women’s biography. The result is many notes, but nothing entirely nailed down.

‘Walking is not the action by which one arrives at knowledge, it is itself the means of knowing.’ Thus wrote Robert MacFarlane in his book The Old Ways (Penguin Books, 2012, p.27). I feel the same about writing. If I write freely enough, allowing the pen to scrawl (and usually I do need to handwrite for this type of writing) I will discover what I did not know I knew. But sometimes in the writing I become stuck and then I will walk. Walking attentively, walking mindfully (open to myself, the nature around me, and myself in the world) will shake free the words and notions which have become snared.

This was written during one of my explorations:

Biography, body, map, walking, writing

My biography is written into my body, a map of past delights, of past misdemeanours, of past wrongs, of forgotten memories. I forgive my body for its inconveniences. I am journeying each day along my life’s path – partly unmapped, the end uncertain. Walking is putting one foot in front of another. Writing is putting one word in front of another. Neither can be done in theory. Both bring understanding in the doing.

Are you interested in creative non-fiction? What would be your writing tips?

 

The Joy of Re-writing

For this New Year, my project is to re-write my crime novel Drowning Not Waving. Re-writing is often a real struggle, especially for novice writers. Where to start? What to do? Here are some pointers.

Firstly take some distance. I finished the first draft of this novel over six months ago. That’s a good length of time to leave before attempting a re-write. It should mean that when you re-read your work you can do so more as a disinterested reader than as the involved writer. Six months ago I thought I had done a pretty good job on my novel. However, when I re-engaged with it in January, I could immediately see problems with the pacing, with when and how clues are revealed and with keeping the tension going. Being a crime novel, these aspects are important. What’s paramount in making your novel work will depend a bit on what genre it is. Though issues around pacing, reveals and tension are probably worth considering whatever the type of story it is.

Secondly get some feedback. I got some following a writing course I did with Curtis Brown Creatives and this has helped me to focus. I started by tightening up the character profiles. I usually discover a character by writing about it, but at some point I pin down a profile with everything I now know. I had done this last year. I re-visited them and ironed out inconsistencies, worked on back-story and refined motivations.

I then pulled apart the time-line, creating more space for characterisation and creating jeopardy. This has also meant moving chapters around which does get a bit hairy, as I then find things happening in an earlier section which can’t until something in a later one occurs.

When I am writing my first draft, I generally find I am carrying all my characters around in my head. At this stage, I have them and my narrative arc which – as a friend helpfully put it – is currently a partly unravelled piece of knitting. It feels like a delicate balancing act, so excuse me if I appear distracted….

Thirdly ensure your feedback is from someone who understands the concept of re-writing. This is not the moment to show your writing to someone who is pernickety about grammar or spelling. What you want is a fellow writer or a reader who is able to take in the narrative as a whole and see where the kinks are or the patches where it limps along. Who is able to meet the characters as real people and suggest where they become too thin to be believed. Who can hear your dialogue and root out where it clangs or where it is unnecessary. It is not an easy task, nor one for the faint-hearted.

I am about two-thirds through this re-write, with all the unpicking and re-stitching I have done, I have no idea whether it will work as a whole. But for the moment I feel confident and energised, so I hope this will carry me through.

What are your tips for re-writing?