How do we learn to write?

Times have changed, or else my memory of childhood has faded. Was I taught to write at school? I must have been, but have no recollection of it. I remember writing, and loving it, but not being taught the mechanics of writing. My grand-daughter, well schooled towards her Year 6 SATS in England, knows all the conventions of writing. She explained to me very patiently the difference between a metaphor and a simile and I’m sure she was correct. And here in Winnipeg I spent yesterday working with teachers on the demands and implications of the English Language Arts (ELA they call it here) Grade 8 common exam. Here again were all the rules of the writing game to be learned and demonstrated, assessed and reported. I must have done some of this stuff, but when, and how?

I think I learned to write through reading and analysing – subconsciously? – how the words created images or conveyed information. Reading aloud seemed to convey more to me than reading to myself. I loved the sound and rhythm of the words, and the way that punctuation affected the pace. English lessons in the sixth form were a disaster: the teacher read his own notes on the set books and we wrote them down. We were supposed to replicate his commentary in our carefully balanced essays, but even at that age I balked. My view of Emily Bronte certainly didn’t square with his.

The other clear memory from school of using language thoughtfully is in translating from French into English, trying to convey not just the technical meaning of the words but the feel of them too, saying a phrase over and over to find the right cadence. Maybe that’s why the poem that I wrote many years later for my daughter’s homework project got an A. I was proud of that poem, even though it had her name on it.

Now I’m thinking about the writing workshop I have planned for January. It’s just a day, and will focus not on the language, the shape of a sentence or the choice of a word, but on structure. That’ll be all we can manage, albeit superficially. But how would I set about teaching someone to write? Read, read, read would be the first advice, and consider the various facets of what the author has intended and achieved. Look at the balance of the sentence, its length, shape and flow, the sound of the words. On the first Arvon course I went on we did all the usual exercises, which were necessary I’m sure, but I was more interested in how a longer form of prose might be put together. I learned so much that week, but still keep learning through reading as much as writing. And I’ve learned that my first draft might be OK, but it can be so much improved through re-writing. Maybe that’s something I can teach people at my workshop, using iterative examples of the same opening paragraph, for example, to show what a difference our choices can make.

Nearly 40 years ago, in 1976, I did a year’s teaching in a massive senior high school in Ohio. There were 3,700 students aged from 13-18, and I was one of twenty teachers in the Social Studies department, and the only woman. That’s a story all on its own. Many of my students took a course called ‘Senior Composition’ in which, ostensibly, they learned to write. It became clear to me why many US non-fiction books were so hard to read. The rules of ‘Senior Comp.’ were rigid. and the students’ products were consequently dry, formulaic and lifeless. I was a young teacher, and a foreigner, so what did I know? I knew enough even then to know that writing needs to reflect the mind and spirit of the writer, not a set of rules imposed from without. Of course there are conventions to be respected, but they are to be employed not revered.

Read, read, write, read aloud, re-write, get good feedback and pay attention, re-write again. Sounds laborious, but what finally emerges is recogniseably yours, as unique as the person who wrote it.

For a while I’ve toyed with the idea of doing a Creative Writing degree. I think I’ve just talked myself out of it.

What do readers want to read in a blog, or a novel?

I probably know the answer to this question as well as you do: any mention of SEX usually creates a spike in the visitors to any web site, but you can’t talk about SEX all the time. So in between we bloggers have to talk about less stimulating – sorry – things such as genre or structure or titles. Last week’s post about the structure of a trilogy appeared to go down like a lead budgie, even though it was on my mind and I wanted to write about it, so I did. What’s currently on my mind may be unattractive to the average blog reader, but it’s interesting to me, so here goes.

In the past few days I’ve been thinking about the link between visual images and what I write, and I’m asking myself  “Is my best writing ‘filmic?'”. When  I look at other authors’ writing I most enjoy, they seem to create strong visual images. I can see, not just feel or understand, what the writer is presenting to me. The first paragraph of Dickens’ Bleak House and its depiction of London fog for example, or the opening of The Road to Coorain by Jill Ker Conway, about the grasslands of Australia. Just a few nights ago, I dreamed very vividly about the opening scene of book that’s currently taking shape in my head. It was intensely visual, like the opening scene of a film. I could see how the camera would pan, the close-ups and the wider shots. It woke me up, a sign that this scene was in a sense ‘cooked’ and ready.

The problem with the description I’m looking for is that it can cut across the dictum about ‘show don’t tell’. You can’t represent the visual image I have in mind through the speech of one of the characters, without defying every rule of authentic dialogue. A passing by-stander wouldn’t say to herself, or her dog, ‘Look at the green of the samfire and how it’s growing in the mud round our feet,’ or ‘I’m struck by the pale gleam of the rising sun on tide-washed sand’. If the reader is to see the scene as I see it I need to describe it, in my authorial voice, the voice I’m trying to use as little as possible.

Maybe my aversion to this authorial intervention is misplaced and needs to be re-considered. Sadly, I’ve received very little detailed feedback about my writing so far, but  I was once told by an author I respect that what she loved was this – the opening paragraph of Chapter 5 in ‘A Good Liar’.

“August. A hazy Sunday. Breeze from the south, hardly stirring the heavy trees. The land breathed slowly, imperceptibly, as if asleep under the sun. Tides crept up and down shingle and sand, silent save for a creamy whisper at the edge. On the beach the air shimmered over warm stones. Fields and valleys smelled of grass. Sheep crowded into shade, panting.”

There’s no action in this piece, except the movement of the tide. There’s no dialogue. I needed this scene-setting passage to explain a significant encounter for one of my characters. And the opening scene of the new book will need the same sense of place, as the setting is almost a character in itself, influencing both the people and the events of the story. What I really want is to find the words that will share the image in my head with the reader in an unforgettable way, that the reader will want to read again and again and share with others, like a poem.

So maybe I’ll think again about ‘show don’t tell’ and allow myself the indulgence of  carefully worded description every now and then, something I’ll enjoy reading out loud, to myself and to others.


‘Forgiven’: the middle child of the trilogy

I’m beginning to think of ‘Forgiven’ the second book in my trilogy ‘Between the Mountains and the Sea’ as the middle child, quite quiet, somewhat overshadowed by its more noticeable siblings. The eldest child, ‘A Good Liar’ was the first, long awaited, with a troubled pregnancy and long labour. When she arrived, to quite an elderly mother, she was greeted with delight and some surprise that she had ever been born at all. The youngest child, ‘Fallout’ created less trouble and worry in pregnancy, as by now the mother knew roughly what was going on and felt more confident. This new baby was louder and forced her way into the family with a freshness bordering on the brash.

Child number two ‘Forgiven’ came along quite quickly after her elder sibling but was in turn overshadowed by the youngest before she had found her place in the family. She is quiet, more thoughtful and perhaps too easily overlooked, but has a grace and charm all of her own. Secretly, for a mother must never admit to favourites, I love this middle child the most. She made me cry more as I created her, and still does. There’s a poignancy in the story, as Jessie Whelan faces her darkest moments, and makes the hardest choices. At the end her loneliness seems set to continue as she hangs on determinedly to her independence.

‘Forgiven’, is currently the least popular of the trilogy. It’s relative of course: all three books have been well received and sell steadily, but still boxes of the eldest and youngest books leave the shelves with greater speed, and ebooks sales have the same pattern. That means that some of my readers at least may not have read the full story told in the three books, which I’m sad about. Between my heroine’s early troubles and her eventual acceptance of love the quieter time is being overlooked. Set in 1947 Forgiven in some ways as ‘unforgiving’ as its context: the post-war years in West Cumberland were difficult. On the first anniversary of VE Day one of the local councils turned down a suggestion of a party to celebrate. ‘We’ve nowt to celebrate,’ they said, ‘and nowt to celebrate with.’ Unemployment, poor housing, rationing, coal shortages and the bitter winter of March 1947 added up to a cold, hard few years, before the resurgence into the 1950s. In my village mains electricity didn’t arrive until 1953, and only three years later the first nuclear power station was officially opened by the Queen, to be followed the year after that by the world’s first nuclear reactor fire, which forms the backdrop to the third book in trilogy ‘Fallout’.

History was moving so quickly then that the immediate post-war troubles were almost forgotten. And so it feels with the slower sales of the book that was set in those difficult times. But it remains – I believe – a much better book than its elder sibling, and a necessary precursor to the youngest of the three. In ‘Forgiven’ Jessie faces some of her inner demons and makes her worst mistakes as a mother. Maybe that’s why I have such an emotional attachment to this book, and wonder why it is seems to be attractive than its fellows. Maybe this is what happens with trilogies: does anyone out there know if the middle books of the three do less well?

If you’ve read this far and you’ve not read ‘Forgiven’, beg, buy, borrow or download it and see what you think, even if you’ve never read either of the others. Then go backwards to ‘A Good Liar’ for the backstory and forwards to ‘Fallout’ for the denouement. I love Jessie, and I want to see the middle years of her life, tough though they were, celebrated and enjoyed.


Me and my editor

In the world of self-publishing there’s always talk about the importance of a good editor, and what editors can do to improve the quality of your work. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to work with an editor who is also a long-standing friend. You might say that having a friend as an editor is as potentially damaging to the relationship as having a friend teach you to drive. Writing a novel is a stressful business, which can cause friction between you as the writer and the editor who might want you to ‘murder your darlings’ – the bits of deathless prose that you want to keep at all costs, even if they don’t work. Or if you are of a more anal disposition you could argue for weeks over the placing of a semi-colon or where to make two paragraphs out of one.

In my case, disagreements between my editor and myself have been mercifully rare. We’ve talked books for a couple of decades so we know each other’s likes and dislikes, and I trust her judgement about what makes a story effective. She knows I’m fairly robust and can take criticism where necessary without flouncing out or getting depressed.

Her role is two-fold. She will be the first person beyond my partner Mick with whom I’ll share the outline of a new book. She’ll see past the messiness and think about the structure and the characters and whether it makes sense and rings true. She’ll point out discontinuities, misplaced scenes, unconvincing plot twists, and she’s usually right. As the writer I can see the action in my head but sometimes I don’t capture it well enough on the page and she speaks on behalf of my future readers, asking for more detail, or less. I need that: otherwise I can make too many assumptions about the readers’ response.

That’s the stage we’re at now with the new book that’s emerging. Starting with a basic idea I’ve been fleshing it out for several weeks now, adding key scenes, fragments of dialogue, expanding from a few hundred words to a few thousand. Currently the draft outline stands at 12,000 words and still I haven’t written any of the substantive manuscript. I’ve learned to be patient, avoiding the first full draft until I’ve a pretty good idea that the basic structure is ready. Of course things will change: it’s only when you delve deeper into the characters and the story that you realise exactly how things might develop. But at this stage talking with my editor about character, structure, and plot development will be invaluable. I sent the draft outline a week or so ago and have come to London for our first meeting about it. Apprehensive? Yes, a little, but that feeling is diminishing as the number of books increases. Now I’m feeling excited, to learn what she thinks and what suggestions she will make.

After these conversations I’ll head home keen to complete the outline, break it down into chunks, re-consider the order and the chapter breaks, do any remaining necessary research and finally get started on Chapter 1. From then on, if my planning and research have been good enough, the chapters should roll on, tweaking the outline as needed as we go. This is the joy of the process, when the blurry image begins to sharpen and fizz with colour and life. This is when I’ll laugh out loud sometimes, or have to stop because the tears are getting in the way. At this stage I try to read everything out loud, listening for the rhythm of the words and the authenticity of the dialogue.

When the first draft is done, back it goes to the editor for further scrutiny, ‘tooing and froing’ between us as the glitches are ironed out. Thank heaven for word-processing and email to speed up the process. Finally after more iterations than I care to envisage right now, the penultimate ms. will be ready for the editor’s line by line scrutiny, to find and correct the miniscule errors that hide in the text. This is when I need to print out to spot the errors more easily than reading on the screen.

That’s how my editor and I work together. Others may do things differently. Professional editing, I believe, is essential. The author is simply too close to see what needs to be seen. My luck is to have found someone with all the necessary skills and who can deal with someone who doesn’t like being told what to do!