Diving In: Writing and How to Get Started

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I read so many pieces of writing advice about planning your work, plotting and figuring out each chapter before you begin but I would like to propose just diving in. Some of my best work has been a blind journey into a world where there is no clear plot or outcome from the beginning, and in many ways it provides a freedom to explore and to let a story unfold.

E.B. White in an interview with The Paris Review on writing once said that,

“A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word on paper.”

I think he had a point in that we often wait, procrastinate, ponder, ruminate. Add any other word that fits and you have a writer who is too afraid to begin. The problem is that time is short and every day that passes is an opportunity for you to delve into a new world of words. I say this to encourage rather that to thwart the plans of those who truly like to plan. But I know that there are those who also wonder whether they can write if they don’t have a plan, an MA in Creative Writing, a bestseller to their name or any other reason to add to the list. Diving in can bring with it a freedom from the confines of your own expectations.

Imagine diving into a huge pile of leaves. There is something in us as adults that stops us, tells us it’s not the done thing and that it’s for children. Imagine the freedom of just plunging onto a freshly swept pile of autumn leaves. Then imagine putting fingers to the keys or pen to paper and writing one word at a time until you find yourself in a world entirely unexpected and intriguing, a world where the rules have changed and where new characters appear. For me this is part of the excitement of writing, and part of the freedom.

Dive in!

Photo: miquilter.blogspot.com

Breaking The Rules

Poet and short story author, Alison Lock, talks to us today about the process of writing short stories and breaking the rules.

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‘In contemporary fiction, technique is, on the whole, more self-conscious than ever before.’ – John Gardner in The Art of Fiction.

I would argue that this self-consciousness is more evident in the short story, in part, because there is simply less space in which to explore and develop. With the proliferation of ‘how to’ books the scaffolding of a short story is given to us and we are encouraged to hang our ideas from that framework. This set of structures take us all the way through the story: from the beginning – the exposition, through to the middle – the rising action or crisis, and to the ending, the denouement, albeit a minimal resolution in the case of the short story. This is a familiar process to many writers.

Along with the addition of other skills, such as point of view; we might choose an omniscient narrator or limit the viewpoint in order to tell it through the eyes of one character. We learn about tone, voice, the development of character (always within the remit of the story), the use of dialogue and description, and, at the same time, we are advised to employ an economy of words as the reader should be able to digest the whole within one sitting. It makes it sound like baking a cake – although, to be fair, that has never been one of my strong points mainly because I tend to improvise with the ingredients.

Faced with all the advice, it is easy to feel that there is little scope for the actual process of creating.

So, where do I begin? Do I take a plot and people it, or do I take a character and put him or her in a situation (a tricky one), or do I take a place, a landscape or an atmosphere as my starting point – and where do I place my story in time – past, present or future?

I wonder what it is I want to say in a short story? Do I want to challenge my reader? How far do I want them to be able to relate to my characters? Should I play it safe, by tethering them to the characteristics with which I am most familiar, those displayed by the people around me?

These are all questions I have asked myself at one time or another but when it comes to it, what I want from a story is a) to find a character interesting; that is, one with weaknesses that I can, and flaws that I can’t, relate to; and who finds themselves in an interesting or compromising situation, and b) a story that has an emotional impact on me. The latter is of great importance for me to feel that it works.

I have no desire to be informed about politics, religion, sociology or any other subject, at least, not overtly, and not because I am uninterested, I just want to be able to go away from the story feeling something, anything, something that I will then think about and it might well be about the aforementioned subjects, but it will be on my terms. Neither do I want to see the structure that holds every paragraph in its place: I feel cheated if I do, as though I have been bought off with an empty Easter Egg when I was mainly interested in the filling in the first place.

To go back to the quote from John Gardner at the beginning of this post; contemporary fiction in the form of the short story is sometimes self-conscious but I believe there are many writers who are breaking the rules. I hold up my hand. But by breaking the rules are we too not guilty of the very same thing – is rule-breaking not a contrivance in itself? Or has that time already passed? Is this new self reflecting writer living in a meta-modernist world? I leave you, reader, with this thought, just as I like to leave the readers of my short stories feeling a little uneasy.

Here is an excerpt from the story The Drowning, in Above the Parapet.

‘…and the shock of cold water crashes over your feet, your legs, your body, washing over your shoulders, your back, the gasp as you come up as if you have hit a sprung coil on the seabed. Wave after wave after wave follows you, chasing you back to the shore, dragging you into the maw. It is a struggle to get back up the shingle to the shoreline and there you let the warm shallows lap over you. That was before the fatal day when Father was lured away, enticed by a shoal of mackerel. They were out in the bay, flaunting their petrol hides, gilt with sunbeams. Before the drowning, he spent his days perched on the corner stone of the wall, smoking his pipe, brooding, willing the ocean to keep its distance, watching for every hint of when the tide would turn; daring at its boldness. It had never yet breached the wall. It would only take a couple of plucky waves on a stormy day to fill the well of the cobbled courtyard for the whole place to be swallowed, washed clean with brine. But in the old days they knew a thing or two about walls and tides and oceans. And so the cottage had remained dry for three centuries and the sea had always kept its bargain, staying to its own side of the tide line. But there was a price to pay, a sacrifice to be made. …’Your breathing is slow as you lift your hand but your arm is constrained by a line that is attached to a drip. You watch the slow movement of liquid sliding along the tube, pumping through your veins and arteries and you wonder how pure is the saline or whether its density is that of the sea. The tidal rhythm of the pulse in your neck is thudding the pillow, booming, sonic. You shift as far as you can down the bed until your face is covered by the sheet. The warm air below the surface lulls you back, into the dream where you are reaching for the coarse cloth of the sack, the sack full of grain. You gather it in, tie the neck with a loose thread of hessian, lift its weight and throw it over your back.’

Alison has an MA in Literature and Creative Writing. She writes short fiction and poetry and facilitates Life Writing workshops. Her first collection of poetry, A Slither of Air. was a winner of the 2010 Indigo Dreams Poetry Collection Competition. Her poetry has won prizes and commendations in: the Virginia Warbey Competition, the Nottingham Open Poetry Competition and in the collection and single poem categories of The New Writer 2010 Prose and Poetry Prize.  Her poems and short stories have been published is magazines and anthologies and she was Poet-in-Residence for the Holmfirth Arts Festival 2012.  Her collection of short stories, Above the Parapet, has recently been published by Indigo Dreams Publishing.

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Her stories have been described as ‘an unsettling journey into the unknown. Each weaves a magical and mesmerizing spell, each keeps the reader tense and unsure in a world that seems to shimmer between reality and ominous fantasy.’

You can find Alison at http://www.alisonlock.com

 

Short Story Publications

This is just a short post with some news, written mainly because of several messages I have had from people about short story writing.  I am hearing from an increasing number of authors who enjoy writing novels, but feel intimidated by short stories, or worry that the form is so different that it would be hard to adapt to the change of style and, obviously, the length of prose.

I published a post on short story writing earlier this morning which might be useful, and I wanted to let you know that several pieces of my short fiction have just been published online. They have all been written in the past six months, so I am fairly new to the form, but it is clear to say that I am hooked. Please let me know how you get on if you decide to try writing any short pieces. I would love to read them.

I normally only send publication news to those on my mailing list but, if you would like to read my published work online, you can find Berggasse 19 in The Puffin Review and I.P. in the Flash Flood Journal (many of you will have read it from an earlier post.)

I am also excited to be able to tell you that Ether Books have just this week published four pieces: Confessional, The Edge of Wandsworth Common, Tomatoes and Thicket, and Un/wanted. These can all be downloaded, free of charge, to your phone.

 

 

How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing

I was asked to write a guest blog post on Marianne Wheelaghan’s writing blog which is full of useful writing tips. She teaches creative writing classes at www.writingclasses.co.uk and is the author of two books. I would recommend reading some of her articles and getting to know her on twitter and on the blog.  My post is on How You Can Use Your Reading Experience to Shape Your Writing. It is a subject which I think is important for writers. Many people struggle with time to read but if you are a writer is is a necessary part of building your craft and learning skills and techniques. Do leave a comment on the post and I hope you find it useful.

Let Me Tell You About The Creative Writing Gene

Today’s guest post is by author Marianne Wheelaghan, co-founder of the online creative writing school, Writing Classes. She is an informative and supportive voice in the online writing community and I have enjoyed getting to know her over the past few months. I highly recommend her writing blog and her twitter feeds are full of good writing tips.

For the first half of my working life I was a croupier, a Brussels sprouts picker and a marketing manager for a company that sold warm air hand driers and soap dispensers, but most of the time I was an English teacher. Then someone I knew died in a terrible accident. I wanted to write a story about what had happened but I didn’t know how to. Being a big believer in education, I enrolled in a creative writing night class. But when I finished the course I still didn’t know how best to write my story. I asked my tutor for advice. She muttered something about “creativity not being something you can teach.”

I tried another class. Again I struggled to write my story. I asked my new tutor why writing was so difficult?  She smiled kindly and said  “not everyone has a creative writing gene, my dear.”  I was astounded. Could there really be a creative writing gene, and I didn’t have it? I wanted to give up but the stubborn side of me refused.  I carried on writing alone. At some point I saw an advert to do a Masters degree in Creative Writing at Lancaster University. I applied and my portfolio was  accepted. I wrote and studied and learned and was encouraged to take risks. My writing flourished and I learned five very valuable things about writing:

1. There is no creative writing gene. Being successful in creative writing is more to do with an attitude than an attribute: we have to work hard, yep, it’s that thing about 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration; we must not be afraid to take risks and we must have something to say – even if, like Flannery O’Connor, we don’t necessarily know what that is at first.

“I write because I don’t know what I think until I read what I say.” Flannery O’Connor

2. While “being creative” is something that cannot be taught, it is something that can be encouraged and nurtured and coaxed – and as the wonderful Maya Angelou said,

“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use, the more you have.”

3. A story does not arrive fully formed, like he Goddess of Athena popping out of her father Zeus’s head. A story is created by working out the different ways of telling it by rewriting and cutting and rewriting again – it is often only through the rewriting that we discover what it is we want to say and how we want say it.

4. There are writing techniques you can learn which can help you develop your writing skills.

5. All writers – beginners and experienced writers alike – are nervous about facing the blank page, but for some of us there is nothing more rewarding than creating our very own story from nothing.

When I finished my degree I was determined to share what I knew with others – setting out on the rocky road to becoming a writer requires a big leap of faith, but there are techniques and skills we can learn to help it make it less scary.  I wrote a course for beginners – the kind of course I would have liked to have been able to take. It included lots of advice on writing techniques and lots of writing opportunities for beginners to take risks and make mistakes and learn by them.

Next I sought out some tech support because my new course was going to be all online. I’d studied for my masters degree online. It had meant I could join in from the comfort of my home, at a time that was convenient to me, which was usually late at night after I’d finished work and my children were in bed. There was no time wasted getting to and from classes. No worrying about talking in front of others. No having to get baby sitters. No being late or early or missing classes because the virtual classroom is always open. It was a magical world within a world. I wanted to recreate this world for the beginner writer.

After much research my techy helper found a reliable, affordable, easy-to-use conference programme. I was ready. Armed with a five year business plan and a lot of brass neck, I approached various bodies for funding. And I got some! Writingclasses.co.uk was born. I now have six wonderful, encouraging tutors and offer six courses – including one for experienced writers wanting to finish that novel, and a poetry and magazine article writing course. We have thousands of students pass through our virtual doors and they are all too distracted developing their writing skills, and working around the different ways of telling their story, to worry about whether they have a creative writing gene or not.

‘It may not look like pleasure, because the difficulties can make me morose and distracted, but that’s what it is – the pleasure of telling the story I mean to tell as wholly as I can tell it, of finding out in fact what the story is, by working around the different ways of telling it.’ Alice Munro.

marianne1Marianne left Edinburgh, her home town, when she was 17 and returned after 30 years when she founded the online writing school, www.writingclasses.co.uk. Her first novel, The Blue Suitcase, is based on her mother’s life and tells the disturbing story of a Christian girl growing up in Nazi Germany. Food of Ghosts is her debut crime thriller and features Scottish detective Louisa Townsend – feisty, fearless, vulnerable and on Tarawa, a remote coral atoll, where she has a week to find a serial killer. She is presently working on a sequel to The Blue Suitcase and a second DS Louisa Townsend novel.

You can find her on twitter @MWheelaghan and @sol0vewriting and at http://www.mariannewheelaghan.co.uk

Her books are also available on Amazon.