Tag Archives: writing techniques

Poetry Bites #8: Ekphrastic Poetry

I love going to museums and art galleries. What I find there often inspires me to write. I have recently discovered there is a formal term for this: Ekphrastic. The idea is not necessarily to give an accurate description of the art work, but to delve deeply into your own interpretation of its underlying story or significance.

The intention is to add to the artwork by having a kind of conversation with it. Am I always saying poetry starts with a conversation…?

We have been lucky enough to have our art gallery open (https://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com/scarborough-art-gallery/) and there is an excellent new exhibition on show. It is the New Light exhibition: https://newlight-art.org.uk/prize-exhibition/. This has moved me to some ekphrastic writing. I am not going to claim them to be poems, more ‘little stones’, as they are not particularly crafted, but intend to give a sense of a moment, of an encounter.

My method for Ekphrastic writing?
Spend some time with art work. Stand in front of it. Look for the details. Study it closely and then from afar. Write for about five minutes in your writing journal. Write loosely, words or phrases which occur to you. Do not judge or edit at this time. Leave this writing alone for at least a week, maybe more. Go back to it. Pick out the words which still appear germane and have a play. This may end up with a little stone, or the beginnings of a poem.

Sorrowing Cloth
A winding cloth,
a shroud,
in a burning world.
It offers little shelter,
or luxury,
adrift, in a lily strewn swamp.

Is it us or the cloth which is sorrowing?

Inspiration: https://newlight-art.org.uk/selected-artworks-2020-21/sorrowing-cloth/

I challenged myself to work from a piece which I was not drawn to: https://newlight-art.org.uk/selected-artworks-2020-21/booby-no-2/

A daughter, not a son, held by her teeth to her mother’s teat,
Our Madonna unholy shuns our gaze.
‘Look away,’ she says.
‘Do not preach.
Do not bring your gifts of platitudes.
Do not think I care.’

Your turn?
Have a go using the link to the New Light exhibition and share in the comments box if you like.

Poetry Bites #4: the Golden Shovel

 

I first came across a ‘golden shovel’ poem in Mslexia (https://mslexia.co.uk/). The form was created in 2010 by Terrance Hayes, a contemporary US poet, who used it to pay tribute to an underappreciated US poet Gwendolyn Brooks (1917-2000).

The process is as follows:

  • take a line (or lines) from a poem you admire;
  • use each word in the line (or lines) as the end word for the lines in your poem while maintaining the order. If the line in the original poem is six words long, then your poem will be six lines long. You should be able to read the primary source as an acrostic going down the right hand side of your poem.
  • Give credit to the original poem and poet (goes without saying).

I had a go at this with a couple of lines from Charlotte Mew.

Not for that City
‘It is for some remote and quiet stair.’

Péri en Mer
‘The crowded mast cut black against a sky
of fading rose.’

Between Species
April 2020

We were going some,
those days before we lost the remote.
We stashed it somewhere safe, behind the sofa perhaps. And
took to watching each other in the awful quiet,
only able to raise ourselves to a stunned and silent stare.

Once the places become too crowded,
people stand like masts
along the pavement, cut
off from each other. Wearing black
for the loss. One day you’ll lean against
me, we’ll watch a sky
in the last of fading
light, smell the perfumed rose.

I was surprised to find I had taken lines from poems written in the 19th century and turn of the 20th century and they became about now. Maybe that is inevitable.

Why not have a go yourself? If you like, you can share your experience or creations in the comments on this blog post.

 

Poetry bites #3: collaborative poem

wood anemonies Raincliffe Spring

A carpet of wood anemones, photo taken by Mark Vesey

The Spring which is bursting out all around is a balm for me in these troubled times. As is reaching out and making contact. So in this post, I am attempting to combine the two. I am inviting you, dear reader, to join with me in a collaborative poem in praise of Spring.

If you wish to take part, here’s what you do:

  • If you can take a walk in an open space. If you can’t, open your window or step outside your front door.
  • Open your senses and let them all assist you in observing nature. Notice shapes, colours, sounds, smells, textures, the taste of the air. Even in the most urban of settings, nature will be there, in the smallest weed, in the birdsong. Spend up to ten minutes drinking in nature.
  • Write for ten minutes. Write freely without worrying about spelling, sentence construction or even making much sense. If you can, write by hand and let the words wander as they will across the page.
  • Take a break of a minimum of an hour.
  • Return to what you have written and choose words or sentences which appeal to you.
  • Send me, either by email or in the comments section, up to three individual words or a sentence. Plus your name.
  • Please do this by Sunday 19th of April.

I will then craft this into a collaborative poem which I will post on this blog in the weeks to come.

I hope you will find this takes you to a more pleasurable place. Be kind to yourself, be patient with yourself, enjoy!

green man Raincliffe

The Green Man in Raincliffe Wood. Photo taken by Mark Vesey

 

Poetry Bites #2: Inspiration

The image is inspired by ‘The Wave’ a woodcut by Japanese artist Hokusai, created 1829/1833, the first of thirty-six views he did of Mount Fuji. I have obviously replaced Mount Fuji with Scarborough castle. It is a mix of collage and acrylic paint.

Once a writer puts their work into the public domain, it is for the reader to discover meaning and emotional connection if it is there for them find. So please read the poem and make what you will of it. On the other hand, I enjoy hearing from writers about their own take on their work, so that is below too.

 

The Day the Sea Froze Over at Scarborough

I walked to the shore as usual
and all was silent,
the scream of the seagull froze
above the un-pounding waves.

The crystal curve caught in mid-plunge,
surely the weight of it will crack
the prism, release what lies beneath:
the crab, the weed, the worm?

People stand and stare
at the roar-less sea, there’s ice enough
to burn a thousand tongues,
cold enough to ache.

The starlings fly and drop
and reform once more, our comma,
our full-stop, our question mark
punctuating the sky.

Even as I walk, the thaw begins.
Water droplets blindingly glitter,
slush edges the beach,
the dregs of souring ice cream Sundaes.

And we who have seen
turn to comfort one another
from the glare of others’
gleaming disbelief.

 

The Day the Sea Froze Over at Scarborough is a classic ‘what if?’ poem. The first time I saw snow on the beach, I was surprised. And I have always been interested by paintings of frost fairs on the River Thames. I began to ponder, what if the sea froze here? I enjoy watching nature and this has also gone into the poem. Lastly, but maybe most importantly, is the final verse. This covers a host of situations where a small group has seen or experienced something which others do not quite believe.

Poetry Bites #1: Be Bold

Currently, I am mainly focused on writing prose, having just secured a three-book deal with Constable/Little Brown for a new crime series set in Scarborough. And yes, I do have to keep repeating this to myself and others to make it real, as I find it difficult to believe that something I have worked towards for over thirty years has finally happened!

However, poetry is still an important part of my life. I am slowly re-reading the poetry collections and anthologies I have on my shelves and have recently supplemented them with two collections by Imtiaz Dharker. I first saw her read at Bridlington poetry festival several years ago and was smitten. I later accosted her on Bridlington station, stuttering in a deranged way how impressed I had been by her reading. I think she was relieved that she was getting the train South while I was going North. Links: http://imtiazdharker.com/poems and listen to her read: https://www.bloodaxebooks.com/ecs/product/luck-is-the-hook Unsurprisingly her voice matches her poems or perhaps it is the other way round.

Born in Pakistan, brought up in Glasgow, Dharker lived for a while in Wales and now divides her time between Bombay and London. She is a woman, a poet, who crosses borders. And she is brave, she is bold in what she has to say.

Be bold in poetry and innovate. Another poet who has found an original ‘voice’ is Janet Lees with her performances which combine words, music and images. Here is her latest Still Here. Evocative and arresting, the reader/viewer is obliged to stop and give the poem space, allow the poem its moment. In this frenetic world it is sometimes difficult to do this.

Which is why one of my intentions this year is to give myself permission to pause and read several poems. Then pause again and allow those poems to settle. I am always interested to find how this nourishes my creativity and my prose writing.

Try it. Take a poetry collection or anthology (if you don’t have any at home, go to a library to find one or borrow one). Let the book fall open at a poem. Read it. Pause. Read it again. Choose a word, several words or a line. Write this in your writing journal. At some point during the week, come back to this and add more words or sentences. Explore where this can take you.

 

 

Tip for Writers #1: Read

We’re all probably trying to find our stride again after the festivities and the turning of 2019 into 2020. How do we support our writing projects for this year? One way is to read. Read widely, indiscriminately and a lot.

We might read to research, or for background to, what we are writing. We might read the same genre as we are writing or to study technique. But, I would contend, it is equally important to read things which seem to have little to do with what we are currently working on.

Graze the shelves of your local library. Borrow from friends (and lend to them). Have a hunt round your local charity shop.

I think it is important to read as a writer not as a reader. Yes, of course, enjoy the story or the emotional engagement, but also have a third eye, a critical eye, looking out for technique, for ideas, for flourishes which surprise.

I keep a note of all I read, stating briefly what I thought worked and what I thought was less successful. I may not re-visit these ‘reviews’ but just writing them concentrates the mind and allows ideas to seep into the creative brain.

It’s easy for reading to get hustled to the end of the day, when we’re too tired to absorb anything. And I love to read in bed, though I tend to go to bed early to read so I am not dropping off over the pages. But I also put time in during the day which is for reading. For many people reading is a recreational activity. For writers it is work.

I am intending on putting more time aside for reading poetry, though I am currently working on novels. Dear readers of this blog, what are your writing projects for 2020 and have you any reading intentions you would like to share?

 

Three things I have learned about writing crime fiction

I wrote my first crime novel when I was 19, thirty-six years ago. I got a sniff of an interest from an agent who liked my writing but not what I had written and asked for something else. By the time I had produced another novel, she had lost interest.

I re-visited the crime genre with my Scarborough Mysteries series. The Art of the Imperfect was published in 2014. I have written four more crime novels since then; two (The Art of Survival and The Art of Breathing) have been published, the other two await next steps.

Writers learn to write through reading, through study, through supportive critical feedback, but most of all writers learn to write by writing. This blog details three things I have learned since re-dipping my toe into the crime genre.

(1) Jeopardy
An agent has recently told me my crime novels lack jeopardy. She said readers today want real page-turners, they want to be kept on the edge of their seats through the whole novel. Whether this is true or not (perhaps some readers, like me, want an intriguing puzzle or a social critique or complex characters) this idea has an effect on what crime books appear on shelves.

I ask myself, therefore, how to increase jeopardy? The main way is to put someone in danger. If a writer wants to stay close to reality, this causes a problem: most murderers kill once, for a very specific reason. A writer, therefore, has to work out a reason why a murderer might be thinking about acting again.

Then there’s the question of who is going to be in danger. It has to be someone who the reader cares about. A woman, especially a young one, or a child, generally automatically garners a reader’s concern. But if a writer is not going down that route, then there is another character the reader should be getting involved with: the detective. I have noticed that more and more, it is the detective who is being put in peril in order to increase the jeopardy of the story. Obviously this causes an issue in a series, just how many times is a detective stupid enough to risk their lives in the line of duty?

(2) The lone wolf detective
Gone are the days when novels with casts of thousands – à la Dickens or Tolstoy – are acceptable, especially in crime fiction. Once a writer has a victim, the victim’s entourage, a few suspects and a team of police officers, there’s not much room for any other characters. It seems to me this might be one reason why detectives with no friends or family are becoming more the norm.

(3) Naming
I often struggle to find names which stick for my characters. Names denote all sorts of things, including age, social class, nationality, culture, race, gender. The way a character feels about their name and whether they alter it can speak volumes about them. I have a habit of having characters change their names for various reasons and sometimes I have to curb the temptation to use this trope.

It’s not a good idea to have characters with names which start with the same letter or sound similar, unless there is a particular reason for doing so. This can cut down the choice. Dickens sometimes gave his characters names which reflected in some way something about them. I am drawn to this method, though it has to be done with a light hand.

 

What have you learnt about writing in a particular genre?

Poetry Workshop – 23rd November, Scarborough

Very excited to have Nick Makoha come to Scarborough to run a poetry workshop and take part in Rotunda Night on the 23rd November. I was happy to host a post by Nick about his poetry on this blog in 2018: https://scarboroughmysteries.com/2018/04/16/reading-writing-poetry-nick-makoha/

Nick will be facilitating a workshop entitled ‘Writing as a stranger’. It will focus on the ‘metic’ experience and how it influences a writer’s work. The experience is most marked for black writers in the UK and the USA, but do we all have a unique metic experience and perspective that we can use to kickstart creativity and to forge original work? This will be an engaging and provoking poetry masterclass exploring issues of identity and race, migration, exile and ‘foreignness’.

Venue for the workshops is Woodend, Scarborough, North Yorkshire. It will take place on 23rd November, 2-4pm. Places on the workshop are strictly limited and cost £10 each. If you are interested, please contact Felix Hodcroft at feljen@feljen.plus.com.

Nick Makoha is a dynamic young poet and dramatist, born in Uganda, now living in London. His debut poetry collection ‘Kingdom of gravity’ was shortlisted for the 2017 Felix Dennis prize for best first collection and nominated in the Guardian as one of the best books of that year. His poetry has been published in the New York Times and the Poetry Review and he is a trustee for the Arvon Foundation. His poems explore themes of injustice, migration and ‘otherness’, peeling back the layers which constitute our humanity. His particular concerns as a poet include the experience of ‘metics’ – people born in one country, living in another and the challenges and opportunities that experience brings.

Nick will also be performing at Rotunda Night, that evening at the iconic Rotunda Museum in Scarborough. Information and tickets from Scarborough Museum Trust, https://www.scarboroughmuseumstrust.com/rotunda-museum/ 01723 353 665.

 

Writing Tips: Voice

I have previously blogged on ‘voice’, so some of this may be a repeat for some of my readers. However, I am adding to my previous thoughts.

I think there are two aspects to voice for a writer. Firstly there is the writer’s voice. This might include (among other aspects) choices as to plot or point of view or language, structural quirks, an outlook on the world and/or future. In some ways this is like the voice of an actor. There are different types of actors. I watch a film with Michael Cain in and I know I am watching Michael Cain. On the other hand, one year I saw three films starring Daniel Day-Lewis and it could have been a completely different actor in each, so effectively did he morph into the characters. I think writers are the same. For me, Colm Tóibín is more of a Michael Cain, while Louise Doughty is more of a Daniel Day-Lewis.

Then, if a writer is creating fiction, there are the voices of the characters. Here I do believe a writer should strive for diversity, which must mean going beyond their own experiences.

One of the narrative characters in my Scarborough Mysteries novels is Theo Akande – young, black, gay, male. What is a fifty-five year old white woman doing writing in a young, black, gay, male voice? There has been some suggestion that this disjunction is one reason why it has not been picked up by literary agents. Perhaps it smacks of appropriation or colonisation. There is a good point here, there are not enough young, black, gay voices out there and publishers should be focusing on promoting them rather than a voice created by me. I do get that. And sometimes I do feel nervous that I’m not getting Theo ‘right’ in some way.

I was cheered slightly by an interview with Bonnie Greer which I heard on the excellent podcast: https://www.thelastbohemians.co.uk/. Greer said we are, after all, from the same species. She also said don’t be an artist if you want to be safe.

Theo evolved over several novels (unpublished & published). Initially he was the ‘sane’ counterweight to Hannah’s descent into depression. He has faced prejudiced and bullying and has many reasons to feel aggrieved, but he maintains his more balanced view of the world because of the ‘secure base’ (à la Bowlby) of his upbringing. I believe Theo is more unlike me because of this than because of his other attributes. I have a very bleak view on life. I also wanted him to be different from the many ‘cops with hang-ups’ which are out there in contemporary fiction, while also having his vulnerabilities. He is more a Peter Wimsey (DL Sayers) than a Rebus (Ian Rankin).

Whether readers will be content with my depiction of Theo is up to them. However, as writers, it is worth considering how we come to characters who are very different from ourselves. I have several suggestions. Firstly, writers need big ears for listening. We also need curiosity. When we meet someone, we need to be asking questions and listening to the answers. The ‘overheard’ is also a great source. Secondly, we research through reading, TV, radio, internet, social media, interviewing… Thirdly, I come back to what Greer said about us all being the same species. At a very basic level, we all have the same impulses to want to be loved and respected and have a sense of purpose. How we might try and gain love, respect and a sense of purpose will vary, more, I believe, by nurture than by nature, though genes must play its part. I only have to look at me and my siblings to understand that. Fourthly, characters develop if we writers allow them to. Planning is often useful, but not if it gets in the way of characters bouncing off each other and off what is happening to them. As with real life, characters behave differently, and are changed, because of what is going on around them.

Finally, as a writer, it is important to believe that all human behaviour is possible. For me, I want all my characters’ behaviours/feelings to stretch back to those fundamental needs of love, respect and sense of purpose. I suspect I would not be able to do great violence to another person, I am far too squeamish and fearful. But I wanted to write from the point of view of someone who could and created Max in my short story Adrift (still available on Amazon somewhere). I feel I managed to capture a mindset which could allow extreme violence and rationalise it. That’s not saying I believe what Max did was right, only that he thought it was right.

What is your experience of creating character and voice? Have you deliberately set out to write a character very different from you?

Sense of Place

Recently the film and the sit com both called Scarborough have had their UK release. I have some issues with both movie and TV series, but the town I have chosen as home certainly comes out as visually stunning. At its UK premier, Barnaby Southcombe, the director of Scarborough the film, explained how the location had informed the final version. The plot contains two interweaving narratives and Southcombe said the two were filmed at separate times of year, aiding the feeling of a shifting time frame. Though in many ways both film and sit com are not really rooted in Scarborough, they could have been set in any (at times faded) seaside town.

In my series of crime novels Scarborough and especially the sea are more than mere backdrops. I want them to become almost like another character interacting with the stories being told. I am currently working on Scarborough Mysteries number 5, No Justice, and seas and oceans from various parts of the globe flow through the narrative.

* * *

Extracts from No Justice:

She lets her gaze travel across the sea to where it meets the sky. It had been a blue day, tolerably warm given such a late Spring. Now the darkness is sifting through the scrapes of cloud to reach down to the flat sea. It is like molten silver alloy. The sun is setting and tinting the hills behind Hannah. It is the brushwork of the moon which is painting the water. A misshapen orb is nudging above the castle which stands on its headland to Hannah’s left, above the harbour, between the two bays.

She continues down the cliff path, through the gardens to the beach. Below her is the meringue-white curve of the sun court attached to the Victorian Gothic spa buildings. At the base of the cliffs, she sits on the sea wall. The waves are easing themselves up the tawny sand, she can smell the salt on them and the Bladder Wrack which garlands the rocks. She’s taken this walk many, many times since moving to Scarborough, five years ago. Temporarily as she thought at the time, to finish her training as a counsellor, moving back in with her parents, into the house she now owns. It hadn’t really been her choice, she had felt she had to finish something, succeed at something, but now she relishes her life here. Especially her walks by the sea. Though more recently, Kelsey’s story has given Hannah pause for thought. She’s more likely to start at movements, which are usually a bird or squirrel rootling about in the bushes. She gives men more than a second look – though the vast majority are obviously dog walkers and many are elderly. She looks out across the water, she won’t give this up, she needs this breathing through her.

Where Blessing and Marianne live, all their windows are nailed shut and the watchers insist the curtains are kept drawn. Only the bathroom has a narrow louvred opening. Through it Blessing can smell the cool salty air. She’d caught the scent of it the early morning of their arrival and had a glimpse of the expanse of dark water, like a tank of oil, a fire lit at its rim. The ocean. Only here it is the sea.

She has memories of holidays by the ocean, with her family, when she was young. For several years they had owned an apartment on the beach. She and her husband had visited the ocean, during the early years, before things became difficult. She had swum in that ocean, strong, steady strokes. She had sailed along the coast of that ocean. She had thought a sea, an enclosed sea, where, in places, one shore is clearly visible from another, she had thought such a sea could hold little danger. How wrong she’d been.

* * *

I am also collecting together some short stories I have been writing over several years. In these the sense of place is more germane. As every writer knows, stories can start from anything – an idea, a person, an overheard conversation, a walk through the countryside, a visit to a museum….. I found that every time I went away somewhere new, a short story began to emerge and I would take down notes. Once back home, I would work on these stories which are very much rooted in a place. The place itself birthed the story.

Extract White Night

The white nights will send you crazy. I walk the hills between Fløyen and Ulriken. I keep to the route, mostly, and there are plenty of others out there being sent crazy by the daylight at midnight. The grey granite rises steeply. There’s rowan, beech and birch on the lower slopes. These soon give way to the spruce and red pine under which the soft fronds of the ferns unfurl and bilberries ripen. Blackbird and coal tit chitter in the branches. Terns swoop silently over the still waters of the Blåmansvannet. A crow caws abrasively. Soon after the trees peter out leaving the naked rock scarred with lichen and moss. I have found my own paths which are safe to stray down, leading to the sheer drops; down, down to the fjord, a black mirror rippled with silver wire. I know the spots they choose, those sent crazy by the white nights. I know where they saunter too close and I am there waiting.

The fjord has its moods. Its surface turns from charcoal, to ivy, to forget-me-not, concealing its glacier-torn depth with a pleasing cloth. An uncareful step, a slip, and a body is gone. A body turns to bone before it is discovered. I am little more than a skeleton now, since you left me here. No flesh. Unremembered, unspoken of, the flesh loses its corpulence.

Since it is unlikely you will return to save me, I have my existence and I follow those who have misplaced the path, envious, let it be understood, of their lustrous flesh. I am made crazy by these white nights.

* * *

I am now reworking the story drafts following comments from various first readers. During my recovery from my hysterectomy I have done a lot of listening to the radio especially to stories being read. It has made me wonder whether I should produce these stories as audios rather than in print. There is something magical, I find, in being read to and I think my collection would lend itself to this approach.

Has anyone else made a podcast of their stories? Any advice?