I’ve been running Creative Writing classes for nearly twenty years now and there’s one thing I both dread and enjoy. What can that possibly be? It’s finding new exercises to demonstrate different aspects of writing. Sometimes the exercises don’t work out exactly as I thought they would; others do – and that’s when all the thinking and effort is enjoyable!
Last month’s topic for my classes was using Improvisation in your writing. And the best-known exponent of this method is undoubtedly the writer and film director Mike Leigh. He doesn’t write scripts but works with each of his chosen actors on a one-to-one basis, creating their individual characters. This can take weeks, sometimes even months.
The actors are asked to think of all the people they know who are similar to the basic character they have been given, and to take their characteristics, speech traits and mannerisms. Each actor builds up the history of their character, exploring every aspect of their personality. Only then are the actors introduced to each other, to improvise scenes to build up the collective whole.
Leigh then writes an outline of scenes, and the actors improvise these scenes while an assistant takes notes. The best lines and moments are kept and scripted, and then the actual shooting of the film can begin!
One of Mike Leigh’s best-known films is the award-winning Secrets and Lies. This starred Brenda Blethyn as a working-class woman who is suddenly confronted with the illegitimate daughter she had many years ago. The scene, in which these two characters meet, was filmed in one take in seven minutes. Neither actress knew beforehand that the daughter was black. And because both actresses knew their characters inside out, their reactions to the revelation were totally realistic.
We tried this in one of my classes, with each character having at least one if not two secrets that were to be revealed. There was a lot of laughter as the secrets came tumbling out! We’re not actors, but I think the exercise brought home how we, as writers, do not have to be slaves to our computers or notebooks. A bit of free-thinking and improvisation can be just as useful in creating our characters and plot lines.
If you’d like to read up more about Mike Leigh’s method, click here.
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Also this month:
Do you have problems thinking up names for your characters? Or do you find yourself relying on the same, stock names, whatever your character, situation and setting? Have a look at my article, which was previously published in Writers Forum magazine.
Several major short story competitions are still open for entries.
I’m off for a few days R’n’R so I’ll add this month’s writing prompts after some inspiration from walking in the New Forest and along the Isle of Wight’s lovely beaches. Please do come back in a week or so’s time.
This month’s photo is by Gemma Evans on the Unsplash website.
I’m sure many of you will have seen, read or heard about the controversy this week over a photo of Stacey Dooley holding a black African child, part of the film she’d been making out in Uganda for BBC’s Comic Relief fundraiser. It was a photo that we have seen many times since Comic Relief was first started back in 1985 – celebrities in Africa, making films of how the money raised is being used. This time, the MP David Lammy accused Stacey of perpetuating “tired and unhelpful stereotypes,” adding “the world does not need any more white saviours.”
Many of you will have your own opinions about this controversy. What it did for me was two-fold: firstly, I did think about how the celebrities might be seen by the Africans they were visiting, and secondly, it brought home how careful we writers must be in considering “whose point of view is it?”
It just so happened that one of my workshops in the same week was about Point of View. We considered the much less-political scenario of a public park here in England and how we were going to describe it in a story.
Before you even start thinking about swings and slides, the very first decision you must make is WHO IS DESCRIBING THE PARK? Unless it is an authorial piece, it cannot be YOU. It MUST be your character.
Do you get the idea? Put YOURSELF in your character’s shoes and see the park from their point of view. It will make your description much more real for your readers and it will give more life (and backstory) to what can often be dull bland descriptions.
If you have any comments on this topic, please do write in.
How much time do you have to read nowadays? Books, magazines, newspapers, websites? It seems that our busy lives rarely allow us the leisure of just sitting down and reading.
If you commute to work, then trains, tube and bus may allow some valuable reading time. But otherwise?
This was brought home to me twice in the last week. Firstly, a family member admitted they weren’t keeping up with the Guardian Weekly – my present to them last year. The magazines, delivered to the door, were piling up and each edition needed many hours of concentrated time. The family member in question has two grandchildren with two more on the way. Sadly, babysitting and the Guardian Weekly don’t go well together.
The other occasion was at one of my writing groups, where people bring paperbacks to pass around. I was told that even charity shops don’t want second-hand books now – there are just too many to store or display and they don’t move quickly enough off the shelves.
Just once in a while, if I have a particularly gripping book on the go, I find a quiet room and sit and read. But I feel guilty! Why? Because there are always so many other jobs and responsibilities around the house that really need my attention.
I know many people read when they get to bed. When I get to bed, I’m too tired to read and all I want is twenty minutes watching Douglas Henshall (Shetland) and I’m off.
And then, again, if you are a writer, shouldn’t you be writing rather than reading? There, I believe, the answer is definitely NO. Writers MUST read.
Here’s an article from Noteworthy – The Journal Blog that gives 14 reasons why writers must read: click here
One writer friend of mine catches up with her “reading” by listening to audio books as she takes the dogs out. There’s quite a discussion going on as to whether that really constitutes “reading” a book. A bit like seeing the film and not reading the book, some people say. Really it depends what you want from a book. A good story and/or good writing.
Again, any comments more than welcome.
Also this month: who invented the full stop? more competitions to enter, and writing prompts.
A whole month of the New Year has gone by already and where am I? Happy to say that, so far, things are going to plan.
And I’ve had a couple of sessions of spring cleaning. Not the mop and duster variety, I hasten to add. More of the I remember writing that years ago, never knew I still had it variety. But it was an incident in the kitchen that got me going. I was baking a cake and was trying to find that little bottle of vanilla essence I knew I had in the cupboard, somewhere. To get to it, I had to empty one complete shelf and I started noticing the sell-by dates! To cut a long story and two hours’ worth of clearing short, I got rid of every bottle, jar and packet that was past its date, one even going back to 2008 🙂 After that, I felt quite virtuous and my mind turned to other ways of spring cleaning, starting with writing.
I never advocate deleting old stories. But I do recommend taking a look at what you have got, squirrelled or filed away, used or unused. Some, you may well consign to the “Learning the craft” file, recognising all sorts of errors. But you may be pleasantly surprised at some of your past writing.
I have just read a captivating psychological thriller called Believe Me. It is the second book by JP Delaney whose first, The Girl Before, was a best seller. Talking about that book, Delaney says: “I started this book over fifteen years ago, but for one reason and another I just couldn’t make it work. So I put it aside and wrote another book instead. That book led to another, and another – but each time I finished a book, I’d come back and have another go at this one. I knew the central idea was too good to discard, but the plotting – and the narrative structure I’d chosen – was so daunting I kept abandoning it. It was only in 2015 that I decided I’d have another, more determined go. So I ditched around 40,000 words – half a book, in other words – and that was the key to unlocking the rest of it.”
The lesson? You may well have a gem hidden in the cupboard or deep in your computer filing system. It might take a bit of work, but if you never dig it out and have a go, you’ll never know!
Also this month:
My article about Censorship and the Stage
Writing Prompts & Exercises, Recommended Websites, and Competitions
Welcome to my first blog of 2019. A Happy New Writing Year to you all.
You’ll notice a slightly new-look to my website – different style and some pages are missing! I’m thinking of producing a book of articles and prompts from my blogs over the past two years, so I’ve decided to “start over” with 2019. I shall blog each month on something to do with writing; occasionally there’ll be an additional article too; new prompts will appear each month, and there’ll be updates on my own writing on the About page. Recommended books, competitions and websites, plus Q and As will all appear together on the prompts page.
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I recently spent a most enjoyable Sunday afternoon listening to one of my favourite authors – crime writer Ian Rankin. He is a most engaging speaker, very relaxed, mixing amusing anecdotes with writerly advice, thoughts on crime writing to his struggle to become a writer. He was speaking at the British Library, under the aegis of the Royal Society of Literature. I thought I would share some of his words of wisdom here but, if you have the opportunity, please do go and hear him speak.
Against his parents’ wishes, Rankin took English Literature at university (What sort of job will you get with that degree? his father asked him) and went on to start a PhD on Muriel Spark. The PhD was never completed, as the money for the course kept Rankin going while he wrote his first three novels, the third of which was Knots and Crosses– the first Rebus book.
This year marks the publication of Rankin’s 22nd Rebus book, starring his well-known detective John Rebus, In a House of Lies. Available here:
On that evidence, you might think that Rebus was an instant success. But no! Rankin’s first half dozen books didn’t sell well at all, apparently. So much so, that he and his wife decided to move from London to rural France. Without email in those days and not speaking French, he says he got a lot of writing done. That was where Black and Blue was crafted which won the Crime Writers’ top award, the Gold Dagger. Amazingly, that book was still not an immediate success, but the award gave his publishers more confidence (having considered dropping him) and Rankin himself a new lease of life.
It wasn’t until his tenth Rebus book that Rankin hit the number one bestseller spot.
When he first looked for his books in the shops, Rankin was horrified to find them in the crime section. He would surreptitiously move them, only to find them back in the crime section the next day. Now, he’s happy with the genre, saying he wanted to recreate Jekyll and Hyde in modern-day Edinburgh. He says that in crime fiction, an author gets to address contemporary issues like drugs, corruption and people trafficking.
For quite a while, crime books were not taken that seriously, Rankin says. And it was years before he was invited to LITERARY festivals. In the meantime, British crime writers became a community, often meeting up at Murder One – the crime bookshop, now closed, in Charing Cross Road, London.
Ian Rankin has never watched any of the Rebus series on television because he doesn’t want to have a particular actor’s face in his head as he writes. But he has been to see the new stage play Rebus: Long Shadowsin which Coronation Street star Charles Lawson (Jim McDonald) plays the part of Rebus.
Ian Rankin lives in Edinburgh, on the same street as JK Rowling and where Alexander McCall Smith once lived too. The locals call it The Writers’ Block!
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Finally, a big thank you to my lovely friends who bought me notebooks, fiction and non-fiction books for Christmas. A writer can never have too many!
I was giving our oven its usual pre-Christmas clean – one of the messiest jobs I’ve ever come across. And I had a light-bulb moment. Nothing whatsoever to do with ovens or cleaning, but the answer to a pressing writing problem I’d had for weeks. I threw off the marigolds (remember them?) and dashed to my study to make a note of my Eureka moment. And then, once I’d done enough on the oven for one morning, I went back to my study, and, for the first time in many weeks, was able to carry on writing.
I’d been mulling over this particular plot point for some time but had never come up with anything like a suitable answer. I knew where my heroine was going; I knew what would happen once she got there, but quite how she knew where to go had been preying on my mind. Why the answer should appear while I was oven cleaning, I have no idea! Maybe my mind was wandering as far as possible from the matter in hand!
I’ve had similar experiences before, several times whilst walking on lovely beaches, either in south-western Ireland or, more recently, up in Northumberland. Just a bit different from a greasy oven.
So, although I’m a big fan of sitting down and writing every day, I recognise that just sometimes, you DO need that vital flash of inspiration, wherever and whenever it comes from. But waiting for inspiration is NOT an excuse for not writing.
More to come in the New Year
I hope you’ll forgive me when I say I am not able to write any more this month, due to family commitments. I do have some new suggestions on the prompts page and there are competitions still open. In the New Year, I’ll come back to the subject of Censorship and the British Theatre which I promised last month.
In the meantime, I hope you all have a really enjoyable holiday time.
with best wishes and Happy Writing.
This month I’m hoping to go to an exhibition at the V&A Museum, celebrating the 50th anniversary of the abolition of censorship on the British stage. I’ve read some fascinating articles about how far we have come in those past 50 years and, for some, how much further we still have to go. I’ll write about it next month and give you some links to others’ opinions.
One topic that comes up again and again amongst writers is when should I start editing?
It’s said that the first chapter of a novel is the one that is rewritten the most. You want to get it right, you want to hook the reader (or first, an agent), you want the opening to be the best it can be. Absolutely – it should be. But constant tinkering with the first chapter before the rest is written is almost a waste of time. Only by the end of your story, will you be in a much better position to know who your main character is and what needs to be included on that opening page – clues, signs, leitmotifs, hints of personality traits and the conflict.
When you start a project – novel or short story – you don’t really know your characters until they need to DO something, until they are put in a difficult situation, until they have to make a decision.
First chapters can be rewritten. They are not set in stone. They can be changed or, yes really, cut altogether. Sounds harsh, doesn’t it? But again, sometimes you don’t know where your story actually begins until it’s written. And then it may be far better to start in media res, rather than with description, setting, backstory and character details.
I like this quote from Raymond Obstfeld in his book Fiction first aid:
“Sometimes you have to write long in order to explore all the aspects of the story, so everything is fully developed. Don’t edit yourself too much while you’re writing. That’s what a draft is all about. But editing is where the amateur and the professional differ. The pro always looks to do what’s best for the novel, not what shows off the author’s writing ability.”
Some authors say they re-read yesterday’s writing before starting a new day’s work. It helps them pick up the flow and often highlights any obvious mistakes – typos, misspellings, factual and plot errors. Others will re-read when they finish a chapter or two, again looking only for the most obvious of edits.
Some writers I know say they can only do a proper edit by printing their work out on paper – not relying on any sort of accuracy by reading on the screen. A red pen is always useful in this case, easily seen when transferring the corrections to the computer.
Me? I was given some advice many years ago now that I have always found to be the best – the best for me that is (everyone’s different). At the end of a section, usually between 1000 and 1800 words, I read it out aloud. It’s quite amazing how this identifies obvious mistakes –repetition of a word or phrase, too many adverbs, the wrong adjective, sentences of similar length, no change of pace, no dialogue differentiation. I tend to correct them immediately before going on to write the next section. Only when I have completed the novel do I read it all through, several times: firstly, to see if the story I wanted to write is there on the page; then again, making notes as to what plot points need looking at, facts that need checking (are her eyes blue or green all the way through?); and then, copy editing, often with the aid of a computer programme, to check grammar, spelling and punctuation.
Finally, of course, there’s always the adage that we can’t edit our own writing because we only see what we think we wrote and the cliché that we can’t see the wood for the trees. Quite true. So, an extra pair of eyes is always advisable – friend, a tutor, paid editor: the choice is yours.
But get it written first. No-one can edit a blank page.