Tag Archives: writing exercise

Location, location, location

Are you here?

A literary setting refers to the landscape and the people/characters that fill it.

The setting is the signature of many a writer: Stieg Larsson and Sweden (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Annie Rice and New Orleans (Interview with a Vampire), John le Carre, the world of spies.

Writing what you know

It is often said you should “write what you know”. A sensible approach, especially for the new writer. By placing your characters in scenes and situations with which you are familiar, you are more likely to invest a sense of realism in the story. Also, practically speaking, writing about familiar territory will save on research you might otherwise have to do on a subject/setting.

Some writers resist writing what they know as they feel their own environments are not “glamorous” or “extraordinary” enough to merit such attention. This is nonsense. Whatever you do and whoever you are, your life will seem exotic to someone else. The fact that you grew up on a council estate/project developent in Bolton/Kalamazoo is interesting to someone living on a farm in Siberia. Remember, the life of an immigrant taxi-driver would quite likely fascinate the Queen of England.

Also, you don’t necessarily have to set your story in your street or your workplace. Think of your Saturday morning football team, your chool, the nightclubs you frequent, a hospital you’ve spent time in or a prison. All are equally valuable settings for a short story, novel, play, film script or even poem or song. Your environment is your gold, mine it.

But I don’t want to write about my environment…

That’s fine too. There is also case for “writing what you don’t know”. Fantasy writers, for example, are (usually) not elves living in Middle Earth. Historical fiction writers have not lived in Tudor England. Yet, Fantasy/SciFi/Historical novels are written and enjoyed every year. For Fantasy/SciFi you need a familiarity with the genre and a vivid imagination. For historical fiction you need to like research. For all the above you’ll require the ability to convincingly create an unfamiliar world.

Bear in mind, however, that while a Fantasy writer won’t get complaints from angry elves about his misinformed stereotypes. A novelist who sets a story in a modern French monastery, and knows nothing about France or monks – is asking for trouble. Firstly, their prose may be riddled with (skewed) perceptions of France and the French, monks/Catholicism/wine-making etc… And not only is there danger of rehashing clichés, their writing might lack the detailed realism a reader finds so reassuring and intriguing.

So, if you want to write about banditos in the mountains of Sardinia, and you can’t go and live there for a year – then research, research, research. Read as much as you can on the topic, as well as any other fiction that has used the same environment as a setting.

Or here?


Clean up clutter

Clean up clutter

There aren’t any rules in creative writing but…. there kind of are.

At least, if you’re a newbie, unpublished, unpractised writer, then you ought to learn the ‘unwritten’ laws of the craft. Once you are up and running, then respected and published and lauded, you can break every rule in the book (so long as you are doing so for a reason).

For now, learn your craft.

Probably the most common “rookie mistake” is to cram sentences with adjectives and adverbs. A new writer will often fall in love with words and phrases and become over-enthusiastic in their application. However, overly verbose writing deadens the impact of the sentence – which defeats its purpose. By all means, use adjectives but go easy and be clear.

An example of an adjective/adverb heavy sentence:

‘A dark grey, crinkled brow of solemn cloud crept sluggishly over the majestic hills that were patchily bruised with a blackish purple moss and randomly spiked with prickly yellow furze.’

There is too much going on in this sentence. Each individual image is in competition for the readers’ attention. The result is a boring blur. Think about what is necessary here. Everyone knows furze is yellow and prickly, so do you need to inform the reader of these facts? “Majestic” doesn’t really do anything here – except communicate that the hill is big, which one would assume.

I would pare the sentence to the following: ‘A cloud slugged over the hills.’

I hope you can see how ‘less is more’ here. The image is much stronger without shoehorning in all those adjectives/adverbs.

A note on adverbs:

Adverbs have a bad reputation in the literary world. Many writers avoid them completely (there’s one right there). I would suggest you use them with caution and very, very sparingly (see, another one) and never, ever with speech attribution (“she said nervously”). Adverbs like “suddenly” or “immediately” are thought of as cliché traffic lights. If something happens unexpectedly in a story, you don’t need to “flag it” to make the reader aware that this was a “sudden” action – it should be obvious. So, don’t use them.

Over reliance on adjectives and adverbs is a typical, and some would say necessary, phase for those beginning their writing journey. So, don’t worry if you recognize your own writing here. As “mistakes” go, the over use of adjectives and adverbs is a useful one, as it serves to build your vocabulary. All good writers should have this phase. Just keep calm, carry on, edit down the adjectives and remove the adverbs – and you’re on your way.


My Winning Story

HISSAC have uploaded my winning story to their website, if anyone is interested in having a read

 


Haiku you do?

Get your haiku on...

The Japanese know how to appreciate the moment: tea ceremonies where the design and the feel of the cup is lauded, the colour of the drink discussed, the scent, the very feel of the beverage dissected and praised.

Not surprising, therefore, the land of the rising sun gave us the haiku. Haiku is a poetic form that, traditionally, aims to capture a moment in nature, like a snapshot with words.

Most typically achieved using seventeen syllables arranged in three unrhymed lines of five, seven and five syllables, the practice of writing haikus is particularly useful if you are engaged in a word-limited literary arena such as writing songs. In such instances, words should be chosen carefully so that they can convey the specific mood, meaning and impact you require and haikus can help you build up that muscle. Haikus encourage you to pick up every word and study it closely for its sound, meaning, feel and impact.

Here are some examples of the haiku:

O’er the wintry wood,

winds howl in an empty rage

with no leaves to blow.

Soseki (1275-1351)

My all time favourite, however, is the haiku by the ‘punk poet, John Cooper Clarke:

 

Writing a poem

In seventeen syllables

Is very diffic.

(John Cooper Clarke, 1979)


Radio Star(t)

I know it's a TV. I don't have a radio photo (and perhaps there's that hope...)

 

I’m doing an interview with WLRfm’ s Aoibhin Fallon after 5pm today – if anyone has nothing better to do… I think you can listen online. http://www.wlrfm.com/


Words don’t come easy…

words words words

As a linguist and a writer, I love words. However, as a teacher of creative writing, I know that the mis/over use of words, particularly adjectives and adverbs, is the most common ‘fault’ you’ll find in the work of novice writers.

Insecurity will have new writers shoehorn as many descriptive words as they can get into a sentence – with the result akin to an over ‘bling-ed’ Christmas tree. The advanced writer will ‘show’ an emotion/atmosphere/interpretation without  resorting to a heavy-handed sprinkling of descriptive words.

It’s hard to ween yourself off adjectives and adverbs. Part of the problem is that there are so many words in the English language, a tongue with more word-families than any other language. This fact is rooted English having sprung from French and German, so there are English words that describe quite similarly (ie “loving” is from German and “amorous” is from French). And with such a lavish spread on offer, it is hard for the newbie writer to exercise restraint. Oh but, to improve, you must.

That is not to say you can’t enjoy words. English has magpied extensively from many languages. Most of my favourite words are ‘borrowed’ words and include: “pyjama” and “shampoo” which come from India (though I’m not sure of the specific languages), “Hacienda” and “siesta” which are Spanish. “Itsy-bitsy”, “paprika”, “coach”, “goulash”, “hussar” and “biro” which are Hungarian. “Smithereen”, “galore”, “banshee”, “slew”, “brogue”, “kibosh”, ‘hobo’ and “shanty” which come from Irish. I enjoy writing them, I love saying them – to paraphrase Frank McCourt, it feels like having jewels in your mouth. I’ve just got to be careful about over using ‘exotic’ words in my prose. It can look pretentious.

And you don’t only construct literary art from words but they also set the tone of the piece and there are certain words and phrases that are closely associated with particular genres of writing. Romance type novels I associate with “tawny” and “chiselled”. SciFi writers invent words to name their machines, planets and creatures such as “Klingons” and “Zogathons”.

Words are fun, go ahead and celebrate words – but do so in moderation…


Displacing the wall

Anyone for graffiti?

 

Sit at computer, bring up blank page, make a cup of tea. Sit at computer, look at blank page, do the washing up. Duration: 1 hour. Word count: 0

 

If this sounds like your typical writing pattern, you’ve got plenty of company. The sudden urge to do housework, rearrange books, check your bank statement- when you really ought to be writing is known as ‘Displacement activity’.

 

Displacement activity is the bane of a writer’s life. It’s the phrase writers have for all the stuff you do that is not the stuff you are SUPPOSED to be doing. Avoidance is probably a more readily understood term, but doesn’t sound half as writerly. What happens is a little ‘displacement monkey’ in your mind distracts you from the task at hand, by urging you to ‘make another cup of tea/check the TV guide/your bank account/ebay/post on this blog : ) rather than crack on with that difficult piece of dialogue you’re trying to get down.

 

I don’t believe displacement activities are wholly bad. I feel they sometimes happen for a reason. Perhaps what you’re working on needs time to settle, or percolate in your mind and after you’ve bought those gloves on ebay, it will all come together. However, I admit, I think I’d get a lot more writing done if I didn’t have an Internet connection in my office… I know a few writers who keep their displacement activity on hand – as another creative hobby such as painting, and they believe one such activity complements and feeds the other. So, they may start painting and then half way through THAT activity they’ll turn back to their writing as a displacement activity for their painting and so on…

 

As with everything in writing, if you find your displacement activity works for you, then go knock yourself out with it. If it is a hindrance, then find a way to stop it distracting you such as getting a room with no internet connection…


The Shipping News

'The Last of the Shower' shortlisted for the HISSAC

 

 

Couldn’t resist the temptation to bring some good news to my new website…

Just received this email from HISSAC about my story:

‘The Last of the Shower’ has made it to the shortlist…
The Final Judges’ meeting is on Sunday afternoon, when the winner will be decided.
Yay! So, a ship may be coming back to port after all. Perhaps this new website is bringing me luck. Third time lucky with a shortlisted story this week perhaps?
In fact, I’m working on a piece right now about a woman who’s looking for third time round luck. Damn, she doesn’t get it though… hmmm

What’s Your Time?

Clock feature on Wells Cathedral

It is said that the closer the brain is to the sleeping state, the more creative it is. For this reason, many writers keep their notepad by their beds and make sure that the very first thing they do when they open their eyes each morning, is write.

The resultant notes are called “morning pages”. Morning pages might contain what a writer remembers of their dreams or perhaps the writer will simply jot down the very first words that come to mind that day. Some writers say that this exercise helps them ‘slip’ more easily into what writers’ call the “rapture” when a writer feels ideas are pouring into their mind from elsewhere.

Just as the waking moments are a bridge from the sleeping state into sober reality – the hour before you go to bed is often a creative time with the brain slipping into that semi conscious state.  Hence there are plenty of writers who write late at night.

And just to show that there are no rules, there are other writers who find their most productive hours are in the middle of the day when all of life’s busyness is in full swing (the Harry Potter author, J.K. Rowling is a good example. She wrote her first book in a busy Edinburgh café).

So, I guess the point is that different times of the day work for different people and it is really of no consequence whether you are a morning, day or night writer. What is important is that you write and that you find your ideal writing time. Experiment. Find what works for you and then set an hour aside each day at that time and write. Likewise, writers have very personal tastes regarding an environment conducive to writing. There are those who like music or TV buzz in the background and those who can only write in silence. Find whatever works for you.


Wells, ah well.

Vicar’s Close, Wells, the oldest continuously inhabited street in existence, apparently.

 

So, I didn’t place at the Wells Literary Festival, the comp I’d been shortlisted for- but I did get to spend a weekend in nearby Wales with my sis and a day out in Wells – probaby England’s prettiest metropolis (and definitely its smallest).  I’ve also advanced no further than the shortlist with the Meridian Autumn comp – results out yesterday. Which leaves only the HISSAC longlisting for me to watch out there on the horizon- the shortlist will be announced on Thursday.

A friend said that winning sometimes blunts the urge to continue – so I’m meditating on that thought today.

 

How are all the six monthers going?