What do you do with your writing?

After all the work you’ve put into creating your poetry or prose, composing, redrafting it into the shape that says exactly what you intended, and then those hours of careful editing that you’ve done, the question of what happens next is tricky.  Lots of us take the traditional gamble of competitions or submissions.

That means joining the other heap of writers hoping to catch the eye of the reading team or judge.  If we’re going to do that properly, we should research for markets to suit our style of writing, which potentially consumes a lot of writing time.

The writing myth is that there’s an easy way round this, that some generous patron will discover us, and we’ll be whisked away on a publishing roller-coaster where we are cushioned from all the detail involved in becoming a ‘known’ writer.  Then our work will not just have a market, it will be commissioned in advance, and our lives will become suddenly organised into sensible, un-challenged writing periods that are generously interspersed with relaxation activities and occasionally involve some promotional work.  Sounds like a Utopia, doesn’t it?

I don’t know about you, but I’m too well read to trust in those.  So what are the other options?

Well, one is to self-publish.  Which is, of course, its own minefield.  Who do you trust? Where do you start? How much should it cost? What can you expect for your money?  The questions are endless, and if you’re interested in that road, you need to do some rigorous research. More time.

katey's poem on you tubeSo I was interested when Katey told me the other day that she’s now posting some of her poetry on You Tube.

That’s something many of us could manage.  Most phones can record sound or video files.  Then all we have to do is upload them to our computers and get creative on aps or programmes, and decide where we want to appear.  Once you ask a search engine about video or visual poems all sorts of advice is revealed.

And if you’re a confident reader, why not give it a try? The web is our oyster, isn’t it?

For many of us, the off-putting part is being filmed.  There are ways around that:

  • Use a static illustration.
  • Have the text of the poem appear as you deliver it.
  • Use a video of an appropriate scene.
  • Sign up for one of the companies that specialise in animating your content.

That last option is what Katey has done for one of her poems, Watching The Kite.  It still costs money, and requires time, but proportionately to the other self-publishing options, it involves less of both.  It also ensures that your finished article has a professional gloss without the need for too much extra sweat and tears from you.

Of course, if you want your work to be ‘shared’, you need to put time into promoting.  But I never promised at the outset that I was going to give you a cost-less option, did I?

 

 

 

Got a Writing Block?

writing book for childrenLook what I found amongst the books at the local fete.  Okay, it’s published as a children’s book, but we don’t have to notice that.  Look at the first paragraph:

Have you ever wondered how to start a story or what to write next?  This book will help you.

See that ‘you’ ?  It could include adults too.

‘That’s all very well,’ I hear you say, ‘if we’re writing for children.  I’m aiming for an adult audience.’

Don’t fool yourselves folks, if we’re all reading the same seven stories, (hello, is that another echo of Aristotle?) we’re all writing them too.

This book provides a series of busy people-pictures plus guided questions.  And yes, they are child-like illustrations, but what happens if you describe the events from an adult pov*?  The language you use, your understanding of events, and your responses, all affect the kind of story you will write.

On the other hand, if you’re feeling inhibited about making imaginative leaps, writing for children could provide you with a challenging stretch.  Think adventure, and the language of ‘let’s pretend’, then look at each picture as a frozen moment, and imagine what will happen next…

The golden rule is, no cutting corners, create your logic and follow it through to a feasible conclusion that doesn’t explain everything by saying, ‘and then he woke up’.

*Point-of-view.

The writing tight-rope

Here’s something that I believe: the best stories are written from the heart.  But what does that mean?

tight rope 1Statements like that are tricky generalisations.  Do I mean that writers should always have an important message to deliver?  No, and no again.  Save me from fictional lectures, please.  That’s a blog post for another week.

What I mean by heart are stories that are rounded in the way that E.M. Forster said good main characters should be.  To read them is to exist within their reality , and when I’m writing, that’s what I aim to achieve.

Transporting someone into my fictional world is a tall order, so like most other writers, I’m always looking for the best way to do that. One method most of us try at some point is to draw from our life experiences: it fits with the principle of “writing what we know”.

Sounds simple, doesn’t it?  Well Hilary Mantel’s take on this is worth considering:

I have sat, at moments of purest heartbreak, in mental agony, and put my thoughts on paper, and then I have taken those thoughts and allocated them to one of my characters, largely for comic effect.

The heart, she seems to be saying, should not always translate directly onto the publictight rope page.

I take the warning.  I’ve dusted off an old diary and am seeing for myself that feelings at their purest, or rawest, tend to generate ‘purple’ prose, or poetry, with plenty of comic potential.  At the time it was a form of therapy, now it’s something I could transform: I can see segments that would help to round-out my imaginative writing.

It’s good to think that some of that energy might be used constructively after all.

 

 

 

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Playful neolexia.

OED

 

This week I’m setting a creative challenge.  It’s an apparently simple task, invent a word, and write the definition of it – as it would be entered in the Oxford English Dictionary.

That means that after you’ve explained its various meanings you need to show the history of your word.  So:

  • Where was it written?
  • Who wrote it?
  • What date was it first published?
  • Quote a line from the publication that shows how your word was used.
  • Include at least two more quotes from later publications that used your word and reference them with author, title and date.

This is a task that we were set on the Imaginative Writing BA, by the late Edmund Cusick.  So far as I’m aware, he created this exercise.

 

OED mantrap2

Inspired readings…

I’ve been reading a short story anthology called The New Uncanny this week.  There’s no horror in the amityville sense, nor gallons of gratuitous gore.  These gems, as the subtitle suggests, are Tales of Unease.

the new uncanny  ...tales of uneaseIn varying degrees, they sent tingles down my spine.  Some happened as I read, others were slow burners that seemed fairly innocuous in content, but resonated hours later.

And if you’ve ever wondered where such ideas come from, then try looking at the source of inspiration for these stories.  Comma Press commissioned fourteen established writers to create stories based on Freud’s 1919 essay, The Uncanny.

That fascinating piece of literary analysis was inspired by a 1906 essay, The Psychology of the Uncanny by Ernst Jentsch.  Both essays based their investigations on a story by E.T.A. Hoffman, The Sandman.

Convoluted, isn’t it?  But personally, I like a few twists along the way, and I shall definitely be keeping a copy of the eight tropes Freud listed.  In case we don’t want to explore the essay, Ra Page gives us the ‘eight irrational causes of fear deployed in literature’  in his introduction to The New Uncanny (thought I’d best repeat the title, in case you’d forgotten what I started with).  I make no excuses for copying them out here, but I hope you’ll still go out and get a copy of this anthology.  There’s some lovely writing in it.

  1. inanimate objects mistaken as animate (dolls, waxworks, automata, severed limbs etc.),
  2. animate beings behaving as if inanimate or mechanical (trances, epileptic fits, etc.),
  3. being blinded,
  4. the double (twins, doppelgangers, etc.),
  5. coincidences or repetitions,
  6. being buried alive,
  7. some all-controlling evil genius,
  8. confusions between reality and imagination (waking dreams, etc.).

Tempted?

 

 

 

Thought patterns.

Late on Saturday afternoon we were all stuck on the word wheel.   When I say all, I mean the three adults sharing coffee, biscuits and gossip round my brother’s kitchen table.

DSCF6353

Sam did leave his lego for a minute to watch me tearing some scrap paper into squares and writing out the nine letters, but he was right in the middle of something really important.  We showed the wheel to Milly, coming in to grab a biscuit and ask a question about her homework.  She laughed, shrugged, and took a couple more biscuits for later.  ‘I need the sugar for concentration,’ she said.

Despite the biscuits, we still hadn’t figured out how the nine letters should be ordered fifteen minutes later, when it really was time to get home.  The best I could come up with was UNVAPOURS.

Later I found my word on google, but without a definition: so that was unsatisfactory.  Anyway, like Milly, I had homework to finish.  So, some you lose, I told myself as I settled down with the bones of a lesson plan.

Early on Sunday morning I got a phone call from my brother.  ‘Sam’s just solved the word wheel,’ he said.  ‘He was making words out of those letters you left on the table and writing them down.  He got SUPERVAN and then NO.  What do you think?’

I think, sometimes you need a fresh view of a problem.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud.

Supernova remnant N 63A lies within a clumpy region of gas and dust in the Large Magellanic Cloud. Image created by NASA and ESA

 

 

Whimsical Scratchings.

‘Writan, an Old German verb meaning to scratch, is the origin of our English word, writing,’ I tell Rusty, as he makes a vigorous attack on an itch behind his ear with his back foot.  ‘It says so in chapter one of this writing book.’

rusty scratching0001Rusty pauses, considers what I’m saying, then goes back to scratching his ear, with a blissful expression.

Meanwhile, I’ve drifted onto another line of thought. ‘It doesn’t make so much sense since we’ve got tied to keyboards,’ I say, ‘because now we tap.  But in those days, it was not just that the marks probably looked like scratches: if the author was using some kind of pen and ink, then it would have sounded like scratching, too.’

I can say this with certainty because I once made a quill pen, from a goose feather, and used it until it was too bedraggled to function.  This was despite the fact that on certain weights of paper the nib squeaked on the same tortuous level as dry chalk on a board.  I cringe, just remembering the sound, let alone the ridiculous romanticism of my adolescence.

‘All the same,’ I say, ‘I’m glad Writan became writing.’

Rusty sighs, he’s done with his itch, and I know he’s waiting for me to mention biscuits or walks.  It’s tough for canines in a bookish household. Instead of discreetly keeping my work out of sight, I can frequently be seen squandering valuable play-time, and who’s to know whether I’m really working?

Here’s me pondering how ‘scraping with a fingernail or claw…to relieve itching’ came to be so satisfyingly onomatopoeically renamed scratch while the afternoon is darkening into evening.  Am I incubating the germ of inspiration?  Only time will tell.

 

 

 

Lessons learned about writing after sending letters of protest to the government.

I sent two letters of protest a couple of weeks ago, one to the chancellor, the other to my MP.  You may remember in a previous post I drew your attention to some huge cuts being proposed for Adult Education.

This week I received replies.

Spotlight on lemons

Spotlight on lemons, by addictioncam@gmail.com

I hadn’t expected either recipient to do an about turn, or ask me for more ideas about how Adult Education classes work on all levels.  I hoped to get a thank you: a recognition that I’d felt strongly enough to spend time thinking through some arguments.

My first reply came from The Department for Business Innovation and Skills.  It began:

…the chancellor receives a large amount of correspondence every day and is unable to respond to each one personally. As Further Education (FE) falls within the policy area of this Department, your correspondence has been passed to this Department and on this occasion I have been asked to reply…

My correspondent, Richard O… then proceeded to quote figures and facts regarding government policy on apprenticeships, traineeships and English and Maths.  All of which are undeniably important, but have no connection with the points I made in my letter.

My MP’s reply arrived a day later:

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I do agree that Adult Education is very valuable. ‘

It was a good start.  If only he hadn’t gone on to say, ‘and is not only vital for assisting people make progress into work, but also adapt to changing job contexts.’

The truth is, that he wasn’t agreeing with me.  He was using a phrase from my letter as a spring-board for spouting party-line.  And, since I had no opportunity to interrupt, I got harangued for a further four paragraphs.

I’ve been trying to put a positive slant on my frustration with these answers.  What I’m most aware of is feeling some fellowship with the political journalists who regularly and patiently take part in this kind of jousting.

Did either man bother to read my letter?  It’s impossible to guess.  Somewhere, I assume, someone has added another mark to a list that keeps the score on protest letters received, and that, after all, was why I wrote it.  So despite my irritation I do still feel that we should sit down and write a letter.

Looking at this from a writerly point-of-view though, brings me to a more positive frame of mind. I’m reminded of two things.

Firstly, never get on a soap box to tell a story.  Writing that makes overt political points is boring, unless the reader happens to already share the writer’s views.  No doubt my letter was as tedious to the recipients as these two directives were to me.

Secondly, when writing dialogue, remember that characters don’t always respond directly to what has been said.  Conversations often happen at cross-purposes.  Such circumstances illuminate character and can be amusing.

The only decision I’m left with now is whether, having been handed two lemons, I make a cake or a cocktail…

lemon cook book

prohibition-cocktail-guide-1920s-1353946008_b

Getting to know a character.

The other day I woke up with a plot idea.  I jotted down the gist and then took the dogs for a walk.  Sometimes when I come back to such notes, I find they’ve lost their shine.  This time they hadn’t.  All they needed was the right character and something was sure to evolve.  It would be a woman, I knew that much, but who was she?

I could almost see her, just beyond my page, as a shadowy presence.  I had an idea about her size and colouring, but that’s not enough to shape a story.  I needed to know what she was really like.

photo(10)But where to start?  One way is to follow a questionnaire.   There are hundreds of variations to chose from, and they’re easy to get hold of – you can find one of mine here, or check out a search engine.  There are all sorts of formats: all kinds of lengths.

But, how do you know which one is best for you?

Well, I’d say that depends on how you use them.  Generally the format will be a numbered list of questions.  The tone often gets deeper as you move down the page.

I suppose the most important thing to remind you is that these are triggers, and while it’s a good idea to go with your first answer, you should also be prepared to revise details as you develop the profile.

So answering number 1, I gave her a name…Pippa.  But apart from a few celebrities, who goes through life with only one name?  We usually need at least a surname to balance that, so hello Pippa Phillips.

But then, instead of moving on to consider her age, I found myself wondering,  Pippa Phillips, Pippa Phillips…who gets a name like that?  How do they get a name like that?

Who better to ask than Pippa Phillips?  This is how my side of the conversation went:

Are you married?

What was your maiden name?

Ahh, so have you married a relation?  Interesting.

Have you children?

Who’s surname do they take?

How did you decide that?

You have a good relationship with your husband then? Oh, sorry, I shouldn’t make assumptions.

How did your families take that?

So, how long have you been together?

Cleary I’d moved off the questionnaire, but that shadowy presence I’d perceived was talking to me, and I like the idea that the story leads the writer. I knew that soon, Pippa would step out into the light and become a describable physical being, and not at all the person I’d first thought of.

DSCF5296Does it matter that I went off on a lateral line?  Just in case you think it does, let me ask how often you’ve been sent a survey that restricted you to an inapplicable set of assumptions?

Questionnaires are a general tool.  They make a great foundation for all sorts of exercises and stories.  But sometimes we need reminding that they’re not a formula, they’re a kick-off for creativity.

Keepsakes and Treasure Seekers

You see this box?DSCF6030It was a thank-you gift.

Someone who noticed how I like boxes thought I would appreciate it

I did.  It was not a big box, being shorter than a penguin paperback, but deeper.  If you look closely you’ll see that it’s made from good quality materials; that the surface has a linen-like texture and the edges are beveled.  I liked the solid design and the simplicity of the logo, though I didn’t know who Jo Malone was, or what they sold.  DSCF6031

What made it really special was that it was offered filled with mementos.   It told the story of a writing weekend, but here was a different view of where we’d been and what had happened.

DSCF6032

For nearly a year this box has been on the edge of my desk.  Sometimes I open it, but mostly I remember what is inside.

I haven’t put this with my other boxes, because this one does something different.  It doesn’t just transport me back to another time and place, it also paints a portrait of the person who selected the contents.