Tag Archives: creativity

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?

Last night we were undressed by the wind by Janet Lees

It took our shoes first;
we watched them rise like odd dense birds
into the indigo sky.

It undid buttons, habits, words;
twirled away the shadows on your face,
the lines engraved on mine.

It freed the magpie in your ribcage,
unzipped each one of my muttering scars,
opened our heads to the blazing dark.

And then there was only bright skin.
And then we were
just air

Last night we were undressed
by the wind. This morning
we woke in our clothes.

This wonderful poem by Janet Lees was first published in the Write Out Loud ‘Milestones’ anthology 2017, selected by Brian Patten.

Here Janet gives us some insight into the writing of her poem:

‘Becalmed’ Photo copyright Janet Lees

I wrote this poem in a workshop on my Creative Writing MA at Lancaster University. We were given the line ‘Last night we were undressed by the wind’ as a starting point to free-write from. So the first draft was done very quickly and I think that’s why there’s some surprising imagery. The ‘odd dense birds’ for example – I can’t imagine ever thinking up this description, but it came flying unbidden out of the unconscious.

I think the poem is about two things which are essentially the same thing. The poem captures something of the time when I fell in love with Ian, my husband. It was a time of complete elation, when anything seemed possible and love felt boundless – not restricted to any person or thing. A few years later, I went on a retreat holiday to Greece. Through long solitary sea swims and hours of loving kindness meditation with a group of amazing open-hearted women, my poetry came back to me. I hadn’t written poetry for many years. After being mired in addiction for much of my adult life, poetry was one of the things I’d lost. But as I swam the words came back – it was as though they were flowing into me from the sea. Again, it was a time of limitless possibilities and boundless love.

‘Free’ Photo copyright Janet Lees

It’s these times in life that the poem represents for me – the times when we are open without fear, and the edges between us and other beings soften and dissolve; when we feel and embody infinite love. Of course, for most humans, these times are fleeting and far between. Conditioned to protect ourselves against nakedness in all its forms, we inevitably default to the comfort zone of our clothes.

 

 

Short bio
Janet is a poet, artist and workshop facilitator based in the Isle of Man. Her poetry has been widely published and anthologised, and her visual work selected for international festivals and prizes including Filmpoem and the Aesthetica Art Prize. She is currently working on a collection combining her poetry and images, and hosting a long-running series of community writing workshops funded by the Isle of Man Arts Council.

janetlees@weebly.com
Instagram: janetlees2001

Keeping Motivated

For most people, the festive season is a break with routine, which will probably mean a break from writing. Then January dawns dark and cold, possibly accompanied by a hangover caused by too much indulgence, too little sleep, or too little peace and quiet (or all three). How to get writing again?

I love to write. I love the act of creating something which will communicate to another, crafting an idea in a way so that it can be shared and understood. I like to tease over words and sentence construction until I have that well-turned phrase or that evocative description. I love to create and enter into imaginary worlds. I also feel better when I’m writing. The act of expression – even if it is only between me and the page – can bring pleasure and relief.

Even so, it is sometimes hard to get going again. Making space and giving permission to myself to write are key. This year, I made some physical space. I spent two days re-organising shelves and filing drawers along with sorting and shredding documents. There’s space there now for new works and that is exciting.

As those of you who have read this blog over some time will know, I have indie published three crime novels based in Scarborough. I still have a couple of boxes of these books and I have decided to run down my stock. The best way I have found of selling books is to get out there and give talks. I now have five set up – see my events page. And I have been enjoying developing a new talk about book cover art. It is a fascinating subject which I will bring more of to these blog pages in due course.

I am also re-writing a fourth crime novel based in Scarborough which is tentatively entitled Drowning Not Waving. Where to start with re-writing? Here are some suggestions: (1) Get feedback from trusted sources. (2) Leave several months before going back to it. (3) Re-visit character outlines and time lines to ensure they are coherent and characters are well-rounded with a decent back-story. (4) Re-read with a reader’s head on, with as much distance from your work as you can muster. (5) Make guidance notes for yourself. (6) Use your notes to start re-writing from page 1 and keep going, one word, one sentence, one paragraph at a time….

I feel energised with these projects on the go. I hope whatever creative projects you have this year, they prove to be satisfying and full-filling for you.

Any tips for keeping motivated when writing?

My Year in Books

I got the idea for this post from one of the books I read this year, Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much. She goes back through the books she read throughout her life, I’m merely proposing to explore the books I read in 2017, and only some of them.

I want to concentrate on the books I feel the most positive about. Last year I read fifty-four books (full list below). Two I didn’t finish. Some were indie published, some traditionally published. What I have discovered is that there is good, bad and mediocre published by both camps. What do I mean by bad writing? (1) Use of cliché. There’s lots of them out there, sometimes they are difficult to avoid, but as with (2), careful copyediting can weed them out. (2) Lazy use of vocabulary. As writers we all have words or phrases we over-use. And sometimes a word suddenly begins to appear suddenly in every sentence suddenly. By being aware of this, we can work on it when we edit. But having a good copy editor also helps a lot. (3) Plots which don’t add up. Readers are required to suspend their belief to a certain extent in order to enjoy fiction, after-all they are being asked to enter a 3-D world created by flat symbols on a page. However, I don’t want my belief to have to take a vacation. (4) One dimensional characters. Give me complex and tortured any day. (5) I know this is controversial, but over-use of direct speech doesn’t work for me. Good use of reported speech can lift a piece and be used to change pace.

I write crime so a read a lot of crime. I think it is important for a writer to read what they are writing. One thing I really appreciate in novels, including crime ones, is a good use of landscape: rich descriptions and metaphorical layers. Dobyns drew on the landscape to good effect. Two things I do not like in crime novels are when perpetrators confess what they’ve done for no reason. Nor do I want it to be the ‘crazy one what dunnit’. However, (spoiler alert) Dobyns managed to have a seriously unhinged perpetrator who I could believe in. As did Kate Ellis in High Mortality of Doves, though having a similar resolution in Plague Maiden took the shine off. In spite not strictly being a crime novel, Sheers had an excellent twist – where two characters knew something about the other stopping them from telling the truth – for a mystery narrative. In November, I went to Hull Noir, the crime festival which was part of the City of Culture programme. I had a great day and saw some very interesting panels, Rachel Rhys was on one of these and I am very glad I shelled out for her Dangerous Crossings.

I picked up Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna in a second hand bookshop. I’ve enjoyed Kingsolver since I read Pigs in Heaven and Bean Trees in the 1990s. The Lacuna was a satisfyingly wide sweeping story with true life characters and events mixed in with the made-up. Re-discovering Helen Dunmore was also a real pleasure, though A Spell of Winter was a truly twisted tale. Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty was a surprise finding, kept me guessing with entertaining and rounded characters.

I like to be taken to other worlds in my reading, so thank you to Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain and Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man. One of my characters in my crime novels has Nigerian heritage and in 2016 I read Nigeria by Richard Bourne. This year I turned to fiction: Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference and Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms (thanks to Anne Goodwin for alerting me to them: http://annegoodwin.weebly.com/). I was particularly taken by Crimson Blossoms, set in the Islamic region of Nigeria, the main character is a widow who starts an affair with a younger man, a leader of a gang of street criminals. The woman, Hajiya, is not desperately likeable and something of a hypocrite when it comes down to it, but boy did she come off the page and feel like a real person.

Of the fiction I’ve not already spoken about, the following should have an honourable mention for keeping me hooked with interesting characters and plot lines: Messud; Billingham; Doughty.

I am very fond of a bit of creative non-fiction & biography. Hence Samantha Ellis, Stempel, Downing, Kelly, Solnit, Kassabova and Whitaker are on the list and were captivating in their own way. But it was Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships which gripped me. Clare spent time as a writer in residence on container ships and his book charts the madness of capitalism which sees cargo loads of useless items going across oceans. Plus he explores the desperate inequalities between the officers and the crew on the ships, the former being mainly European, the latter from Asian countries. I didn’t immediately take to Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk, however, I was struck by her honesty, particularly in her phrase: ‘The narcissism of the bereaved is great.’

Tara Bergin’s The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx was the only poetry collection I read this year. On the other hand, I heard more at a regular local Open Mic and poetry salon and I had a feast of verse at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I am beginning to wonder whether I prefer to listen to poetry than to read it, or I’d prefer to do both at the same time.

What were your favourite books in 2017? What would you say are the features of bad or good writing?

January
Arnaldur Indridason Arctic Chill
Barbara Kingsolver The Lacuna
Orhan Pamuk My Name is Red

February
Nadine Matheson The Sisters
Ann Cleeves Cold Earth
Janet Ellis The Butcher’s Hook

March
Claire Messud The Last Life
Daphne Glazer By the Tide of the Humber
Margaret Drabble The Pure Gold Baby
Samantha Ellis How to be a Heroine. Or what I’ve learned from reading too much
Arnaldur Indridason Outrage
Abir Mukherjee A Rising Man
Orhan Pamuk Snow (unfinished)

April
Peter Robinson Friend of the Devil
Owen Sheers I Saw a Man
Helen Macdonald H is for Hawk
Colm Tóbín Nora Webster
Val McDermid Out of Bounds

May
PD James Talking about Detective Fiction
Patrick Gale A Perfectly Good Man
Mark Billingham Die of Shame
Helen Dunmore A Spell of Winter
Louise Doughty Black Water

June
John Lewis Stempel The Running Hare. And Secret Life of Farmland (unfinished)
Sefi Atta A Bit of Difference
Taylor Downing Breakdown, the crisis of shell shock on the Somme 1916
Abubakar Adam Ibrahim Season of Crimson Blossoms

July
Ann Cleeves The Seagull (advance copy)
Kate Summerscale The Wicked Boy
Helena Kelly Jane Austin, the secret radical

August
Stef Penney Under a Pole Star
Helen Dunmore Exposure
Elly Griffiths The Woman in Blue
Kate Ellis A High Mortality of Doves

September
Sarah Waters The Little Stranger
Kate Ellis The Plague Maiden
Horatio Clare Down to the Sea in Ships
Leila Aboulela The Kindness of Enemies
Rebecca Solnit Wanderlust. A history of walking

October
Samantha Ellis Take Courage. Anne Bronte and the Art of Life
Tara Bergin The Tragic Death of Eleanor Marx
Sophie Hannah Did You See Melody? And A Game for All the Family
Tan Twan Eng The Gift of Rain
Liane Moriarty Truly, Madly, Guilty

November
Robert Whitaker The Mapmaker’s Wife
Donna Leon By Its Cover
David Young Stasi Child

December
Stephen Dobyns Boy in the Water
Alison Baillie Sewing the Shadows Together
Kapka Kassabova Border, a journey to the edge of Europe
Rachel Rhys Dangerous Crossings
Helen Dunmore The Lie

Writing the therapeutic journey #8: the yoga of writing

The Nab from the veranda at Barmoor

I have just returned from facilitating some writing sessions during a yoga retreat. I have been very fortunate to be a part of three of these retreats run by the Little Yoga Company (http://www.littleyogacompany.co.uk/) and held at the wonderful Barmoor centre on the edge of the Yorkshire Moors (http://www.barmoor.org.uk/).

During my sessions, I invite participants to explore: free writing and whole body writing. I have written a lot about free writing (most recently: https://goo.gl/5exuRx) so I thought I would focus on my ideas around whole body writing.

We often think about writing as a very cerebral activity, but I think if we ignore the part our body has in the process, then we miss out on a lot. The word yoga comes from the Sanscrit word for ‘union’. And what I want to encourage is a union of mind and body in writing, along with a union of self with the universe through the natural world.

I wrote this following the retreat in the Spring: ‘The body has knowledge which the mind has not accepted or is unaware of, bringing that knowledge to the writing hand and onto the paper allows the mind to consider it. This knowledge stored in our body can bring us closer to a more authentic and enriched sense of self.’

The idea that the body stores information is not new, look, for instance, at the work of Babette Rothschild and Kim Etherington. There is some research evidence which suggests emotional response begins in the body and then is given a name by the brain. Whether we are writing for our own well-being or for an audience, tapping into the font of knowing which resides in our body can be useful.

Participants on a yoga retreat are already primed to being aware of what is going on in their bodies. To enhance this, I often start my writing session with a simple body scan. It’s easier to do this standing up with eyes closed, so the focus goes inwards. Take some breaths, then draw your attention to your feet and make sure you are safely rooted to the ground and balanced, perhaps imagining yourself as a tree, your toes delving into soil. Begin to bring your focus up your body, slowly, while still maintaining a steady breath, letting your mind’s eye explore your body internally, perhaps particularly areas where there is tension or pain. Once you have reached the crown of your head, rest for a moment before descending your attention gently and slowly back down to your rooted feet again. Open your eyes. Focus on the first thing you see (if you can do this outside or in front of a window looking out onto some nature, all the better). Sit down and free write for five minutes.

Tree in Autumn colours at Barmoor

It is also interesting to write noticing what is happening in your body. Again do some free writing, perhaps using the prompt of, for example, a pebble or the view of a tree (something in nature). As you write, have a part of your attention on how your body is. Do you grip the pen? Do you draw tension in at certain times? What’s going on in your shoulders? In your back? Are parts of your body askew or wound round each other as you sit?

You might like to reflect back on the results of this focus while writing. See post: https://goo.gl/sucyDu 

I do not know where this exploration of whole body writing will take you. However, it may open up some memories or give some meaning or understanding to a particular health issue. It may help you to define some needs or desires which are not currently being attended to. If you are writing for an audience, it may make your descriptions of emotions and your characterisation more rounded. It may encourage something else entirely to surface. The main thing is to remain open and curious, noticing and kind. See https://goo.gl/a6Wp7e

This is what I wrote following the retreat in May:
Unloosen
the potentials and ‘also’s
in every season of life.

I would like to thank and acknowledge my friend Lesley Glover for the discussions we have had which have helped me formulate these ideas. See her website at: https://lesley-glover.co.uk/

Have you experience of yoga and writing you would like to share?

 

Reading & Writing Poetry #1

I’ve decided to launch a new series on my blog about reading and writing poetry. Each post will feature a poem – mine or maybe (if I can persuade them to) another poet’s – followed by a brief explanation of how it came to be written. I believe strongly that to be any kind of writer you have to read what has been written by others. This is no less true for poetry. It surprises me when I come across people who say they write poetry and then take no interest in what else is out there. As well as the pure enjoyment of revelling in the words, rhythm and music of the poems, there is so much to gain and learn in the reading.

This will, no doubt, be an occasional series, but I hope you enjoy it nevertheless. Feel free to comment.

Aspects of Autumn

Season of mellow mists and after damp,
joint between fecundity and decay,
you’re the rusted hinge, the balanced moment
before summer green becomes winter grey.
Your turned leaves are brazen in their dying,
firelit, their brassy tones trumpet their end,
they only fall to nest the ripening
kernels, torn from their cradles by the wind.
Your clods of decomposing foliage
remind us of our oozing hours,
your fruitfulness recalls our barren endeavours
to do, to strive — vanquish the final toll.
So then, only let your splendour fill us —
allow it to give us pause. Let us be still.

This is a Shakespearean sonnet. It has fourteen lines. It basically has a iambic pentameter rhythm (de-dum, de-dum, five times in a line). It rhymes a/c-b/d, until the last two lines which rhyme. There is what is called a volta around the ninth line, where there is a slight movement of focus. A volta can be dramatic or subtle, here it is like the slow falling of a leaf.

When I came to do my MA at Sussex University, I hadn’t read or written poetry since leaving school some twenty-five years previously. At school I had loved our study of TS Elliot, but I had always felt I didn’t know enough (which I now think was probably, at least partly, Elliot’s intention). So I had mixed feelings about engaging with poetry again. However, I found myself diving in and becoming immersed in it. This also coincided with a period when I was struggling a lot with the depression I live with, and I do think the brevity, pithiness and emotional potency of poetry probably struck a resonant chord within me.

And yet, and yet, though I read a lot and wrote tons, I frequently felt I was running to catch up with people who had studied poetry all their lives. Plus ‘form’ scared me, I couldn’t understand the rules about meter and rhyme, and none of what I wanted to say seemed to fit within what I saw as constrictions. Then I came across two books. 52 Ways of Looking at a Poem by Ruth Padel and Some Things Matter (a book of sonnets) by James Nash. These two books opened up form for me and I was lucky enough to go to a workshop on sonnet writing led by James at the Bridlington Poetry Festival. I came to realise what form has to offer. It can be a frame which captures unruly and difficult emotions. It can create and emphasise a musicality which could be engaging or dissonant depending on the desired effect. It can create contrast between the strictures of the form and what feels unsayable.

Aspects of Autumn came after James’s workshop. It, of course, draws heavily on the John Keats poem. I love the colours of Autumn and walk as part of my creative practice. I recall walking round looking at the trees and the Keats lines rattling about in my head. Perhaps someone had said them on the radio that morning, maybe they were half-remembered from school. So these lines were my starting point. And the first part of the poem came quite easily, just from my observations of the season. Then I hit the volta and the question of what I was really trying to say in the poem. It took me ages (and many discussions with a poet friend of mine) to find out what the ‘kernel’ of the sonnet was; turning it from what could be thought of as a nice bit of description into something with another – hopefully more philosophical – layer.

Nourishing the Creative Soul

As a writer I find that I must take time to nourish my creative spirit. Julia Cameron in her excellent book The Artist’s Way talks about this too. She suggests ‘artist’s dates’ which we take by ourselves to top up our creativity, visits to, for instance, art galleries, the theatre, festivals…

This weekend I went to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (https://ysp.org.uk/) What a wonderful place this is. This was my third visit and I sometimes feel I could move in there! As I wandered around, I discussed with my companion (OK I didn’t follow Cameron’s stricture of going alone) the sculptural beauty of the nature around us as opposed to the sculpture created by humans. The trees in particular were looking especially wondrous. I often think this with my writing, why should I try to capture in my paltry words what mother earth creates with truly staggering and startling abundance? In the end, I came up with the suggestion that what we artists and writers are trying to do is add a layer of meaning or story-telling beyond the realism.

We also deliberated over why artists feel the need to share their work, especially when, frequently, the expression is so personal. I have often thought that my need to publish is narcissistic, egotistically and possibly pathological. However, on Saturday, I realised that to share is a human trait; it forms bonds, societal boundaries, empathy. Sharing is (at its best) the glue which sticks us all together. It gave me a modicum of relief from my worries over the balance of my wits.

I am very lucky because next Sunday I will also be gaining food for thought and, hopefully, soul by attending Hull Noir https://www.hullnoir.com/ I am only able to go on that one day – the festival runs over the weekend of the 18th/19th November, and there are events in the preceding week as well – but the panels look as if they will stimulating. The subjects being ranged over include: the golden age Vs digital age; freedom, oppression & control; unusual settings; and unlikeable protagonists.

Hope to see you there!

 

Photos copyright Mark Vesey 2017