Tag Archives: Bird by Bird

Some Recommended Books for Writers

So what books about writing do you recommend to other writers? Our writing group recently pooled titles they found useful. A book that was mentioned by more than one writer was The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron. Many beginner writers follow her recommendations to get started.

Establishing a Writerly Routine

I must admit that the advice to establish a routine, to find your best time and always write in it, to always write 500 words a day and so forth does not fit the life of an ordinary mortal. Nor is it necessarily good advice. Sometimes routine is just what you don’t want. However, I have adapted Morning Pages, but it’s the only bit of routine I have. I wrote about it here.

Virginia Woolf noted that she used her writing diary to loosen the ligaments.

‘… the habit of writing thus for my own eye only is good practice. It loosens the ligaments. Never mind the misses and stumbles … I believe that during the past year I can trace some increase of ease in my professional writing which I attribute to my causal half hours after tea.’ (A Writer’s Diary, April 20th 1919)

More After Tea Pages than Morning Pages. Many writers benefit from writing to get into the zone and to work out their glitches and never show it to anyone.

Reading for Writers

The most succinct advice to writers of all levels of experience, and perhaps most frequently quoted advice too, comes from Stephen King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot. There’s no way round these two things that I am aware of, no short cut. (On Writing)

Specific advice on how to read productively for writers comes in Reading for Writers by Francine Prose. Putting the advice into practice was the subject of an earlier post on this blog called Reading for Writers.

Some specific recommendations

For help with story structure I was advised (by a published author) to read Into the Woods by John Yorke. It was excellent advice, and Yorke’s book has helped me with the revision of the first draft of my novel.

Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott is an excellent and realistic book for many aspects of writing, especially about going on going on. The title refers to her father’s advice about completing some homework. You just tackle it bird by bird.

A few months ago I recommended Ursula Le Guin’s collection of essays Words are my Matter: writings about life and books 2000-2016. We have much to learn from our most experienced writers. I especially warmed to her thoughts on imagination and how you must learn to develop it.

Currently I am dipping into Philip Pullman’s Daemon Voices: Essays on Storytelling, full of interesting observations from a craftsman.

Resources for publishing

The Writers & Artists Year Book.

And Mslexia’s Indie Press Guide, now out in a second edition.

The poets amongst in our writing group recommended these:

Writing Poetry by Peter Samson

An Ode Less Travelled by Stephen Fry

Of course you could just follow this:

To subscribe and receive email notifications of future posts on Bookword please enter your email address in the box.


Filed under Books, My novel, Reading, Writing

An on-line writing course: #1 purposes

Writers must take risks. Personally I hate those little motivational quotes that seem to flood through the twitter timelines of the writing community. Are there a lot of procrastinors out there, delaying the moment of getting down to it by searching for pithy emoticon-strewn one-liners?

Being a good writer is not about nailing it first time. It’s about not giving up until a piece is polished to perfection.

Thank you. I know. But how?

Easy reading is damned hard writing. (Nathaniel Hawthorne)

Thank you. I know. But what does ‘hard’ mean? How do you write harder?

The successful writer listens to himself. (Frank Herbert)

Thank you. Are all writers men? And what on earth does this mean in practice? And here’s my all time unfavourite:

Smiling is the best way to face any problem, to crush any fear and to hide any pain.

Not helpful. Smiling has not helped me edit one single sentence. Why do people write this stuff? I probably have to accept it comes with roaming in twitterland.

Despite my impatience with this stuff, the quotes that resonate with me are the ones about taking risks. Anne Rice says it:

145 Risk quoteHere’s my risk – blogging, that is going public, about an on-line writing course I have signed up for. I plan to write about my aims and purposes, about the processes and the outcomes. It’s that virtuous learning cycle of Do, Review, Learn and Apply for those of you in the education world. And risk can be a good learning strategy. Although I’m keen not to make a fool of myself.

Here goes.

Preparation for the course – clarifying my purposes.

The course blurb boils down to an intention to help writers develop self-editing skills. It begins in January 2015 and last for 6 weeks.

Some introductory explanation:

A long-term reader of this blog may have wondered what has happened to my novel. Is it still in the drawer, resting its way to perfection? Has the success of Retiring with Attitude since its publication in July 2014 led me to abandon the novel? Has it quietly been improved and is now ready for whatever the next thing is? No to all of those.

58 Bird by birdI had completed the first draft of the novel. All first drafts are ‘shitty’ according to Anne Lamott in Bird by Bird. She was quoting Hemingway. Little of my first daft was raw, first splurge stuff, but I was still conscious that it was not yet ready to be shown to anyone. It needed work.

So I read through it. And I made notes. I began to work through different plot lines. I made notes. I read parts of the chapters to my writing groups that relate to one of the two protagonists. They commented. I made notes. And I say to myself, I don’t really know how to go about this revision. But I have lots of notes.

I want to make my novel the best it can be before sending it to a literary critique service. But after all the actions I have described above, it is clear to me that I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do next. Intelligence is knowing what to do when you don’t know what to do, according to the educationalist Guy Claxton.

145 inkwell on screenI know what to do. Find help! And this course, on self-editing skills will be the start of that help! I hope.

So here are my aims for the course:

  • To acquire the skills I need to move my novel on to the next stage.
  • To practise these self-editing skills.
  • To begin to identify the tasks and approaches I need to attend to to move my novel on.
  • To identify specific tasks I need to undertake related to these aspects: plot, character, voice, point of view and prose.
  • To connect with other writers through the Cloud who are involved in the same processes.
  • To blog about the experiences at least once more.

My very first task is to find out how to get to the course on-line. It looks daunting but I must be able to do it. I set up a blog for goodness sake. The tutors advise familiarisation and practice in advance. My faith in them develops. Not only are they published writers but they seem to know a bit about learning to write and learning on-line.145 old hands

Wish me luck and no procrastination. This is it. *Moves cursor to enter website.* Six weeks of writing and editing to the discipline of another’s drum. I’ll let you know how I get on. I’m smiling, by the way.

145 emoticonMeantime, you could tell me what you think I have missed out in my purposes/aims/objectives for the course.


You can subscribe and receive email notifications of future blogposts by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.


Filed under Learning, My novel, Writing

A visit from my inner critic

‘Oh I know what you mean! He’s exactly like mine!’ When I introduced my inner critic on this blog back in March there was a warming response; some readers said my inner critic was just like theirs, others recognised the character I had described as ‘a bit of an animal’ and others gave advice about how to deal with him (it is a him). And at the end of this blogpost I’ll share the best advice I have garnered.


I haven’t blogged about writing for a while, largely because I haven’t been doing much. And that’s because I have been unsettled by moving house (and life) to Devon. But I have been reading about writing. Bird by Bird: some instructions on writing and life by Anne Lamott featured in a list of the ten best books about writing. Bird by Bird is Number One on the, which impressed me because I had already read many of the featured books.

58 Bird by birdI have enjoyed Bird by Bird very much. Anne Lamott is worldly, generous, grounded and she gives practical advice with humour, supported by experience. She has two pieces of advice that are especially relevant to the inner critic. The first is that you only ever need to write ‘short assignments’. She explains:

All I am going to do right now, for example, is write that one paragraph that sets the story in my hometown, in the late fifties, when the trains are still running. I am going to paint a picture of it, in words, on my word processor. Or all I am going to do is to describe the main character the very first time we meet her, when she first walks out of the front door and onto the porch. I am not even going to describe the expression on her face when she first notices the blind dog sitting behind the wheel of her car – just what I can see through the one-inch picture frame, just one paragraph describing the woman, in the town where I grew up, the first time we encounter her. (p18)

This is such useful advice when you are stuck and facing the revision of the first draft of a novel, as I am – just tackle one short assignment after another.

Her second valuable nugget is – remember, all first drafts are shitty. I felt so grateful to her when I read this paragraph about setting out to write that shitty first draft and being deflected by the dreaded inner critic.

What I’ve learned to do when I sit down to work on a shitty first draft is to quiet the voices in my head. First there’s the vinegar-lipped Reader Lady, who says primly, “Well, that’s not very interesting, is it?” And there’s the emaciated German male who writes these Orwellian memos detailing your thought crimes. And there are your parents, agonizing over your lack of loyalty and discretion; and there’s William Burroughs, dozing off or shooting up because he finds you as bold and articulate as a houseplant; and so on. And there are also the dogs: let’s not forget the dogs, the dogs in their pen who will surely hurtle and snarl their way out if you ever stop writing, because writing is, for some of us, the latch that keeps the door on the pen closed, keeps those crazy ravenous dogs contained. (p26)

Do you know what she means or even recognise these voices? I too hear such a cacophony and so my first step is identifying them. Here are the ones I hear most frequently:

My school teacher, Mrs Hunt, who wants me to slow down and practise, not write stories that never end. ‘Be reasonable Caroline, published authors have to refine what they write. And be merciful to your readers.’ Actually, Mrs Hunt, these days I love revising and editing and my short stories are all less than 5000 words.

‘This is very derivative,’ says the poet, Laurence Lerner, who damned my poetry 50 years ago. ‘Chopped up prose’ he observed then. He was right. I was devastated. He’s still going strong. I don’t write poetry these days. And my other writing has improved over the decades.

My novelist friend – a proper published novelist – (you know who you are) who says, very politely, very gently, and with affection, ‘hmmmm, one or two nice phrases, but …’ I should make it clear that I’ve never actually shown him any of my writing, so I have no idea what he would say. I am sure it would be very helpful, because he is that kind of person. [Inner critic: so perhaps you should ask him!]

And the voice I recognise as my own, my little Peperami, which says, ‘are you still trying to be a writer? Whatever has given you the idea you should persist since this is all so bad, boring and banal? Nobody’s asking you to write, you know!’ I just have to quiet that one until he gets tired of leaping around and saying the same thing.

58 Chekhov

Here are the strategies for dealing with these voices. I drown them out with my own mantra – I am learning to improve my writing. I write one short assignment after another. Chekhov said (according to Jurgen Wolf in Your Creative Writing Masterclass):

You must once and for all give up being worried about success and failure. Don’t let that concern you. It’s your duty to go on working steadily day by day, quite steadily, to be prepared for mistakes, which are inevitable, and for failures. (p214)

I don’t think it is possible to give up worrying, to stop being concerned about success and failure. It’s not like giving up parsnips or the Sunday papers or red socks. But the Russian master’s observation that you just need to turn up at your writing desk echoes what so many writers say. It fits with Anne Lamott’s idea of the short assignment, and Hilary Mantel’s advice (also in the Masterclass. These quotations are included in the chapter about confidence, and that should tell us something.) This is what Hilary Mantel said:

If you are unpublished, you can still say to yourself, “I am a writer.” You should define yourself as such. (p217)

58 Mantel quoteSo next time my inner critic hangs around too long I’ll say, ‘Go away, or at least be quiet, unless you have something useful to suggest. I have a short writing assignment to do! And by the way, I’m working on improving my writing!’


If you want to be notified of further blogposts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the top of the column on the right.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing

Write one picture

First find your post cards. Not so easy when you have just moved house and got thoroughly bored with emptying large cardboard boxes. I had to up-end myself into a not yet unpacked tall box to find my collection of post cards. I keep them in a shoe box, which if it wasn’t made for shoes might have been made for pcs.

It is some time since I came across the National Gallery’s brilliant programme for primary kids and their teachers called Take One Picture. It’s been going for about ten years. I have seen primary classes do amazing, inventive, creative, studious, collaborative, fanciful activities stimulated by this programme. The teachers attend a training session and then return to their class to help their students explore an aspect of the primary curriculum. It might be geometry, music, maths, play acting, story telling, drawing, science … I try to visit the annual Take One Picture exhibition at the National Gallery every year to enjoy the inventiveness of the school children. I will never forget the play based on the little girl with the hoop in Renoir’s picture of the umbrellas.

reni1 004

Write one picture is a writing activity. You might have come across versions of it on writing courses. The purpose is to stir the imagination. The tutor gives each participant a postcard and then allows ten minutes or so of silence while they write away: a story, a description, something NOT connected with the picture … I see it as a version of ‘Take One Picture’, an invitation to explore and practice writing in different genres, from a variety of points of view, description, dialogue, character, and so on.

For an example for this blogpost I chose a painting by Whistler (on display in Tate Britain) called Miss Cicely Alexander, Harmony in Grey and Green, dated 1872. First I made a list of 10 ways in which I could use this picture to practice writing:

  1. In the style of Henry James or Edith Wharton
  2. Description of the dress, the setting, the girl’s character
  3. A story from the perspective of the subject, Cicely
  4. A meditation on grey and green in words
  5. A story in the 3rd person,
  6. A story from the perspective of someone looking at the painting
  7. Cicely looking back at her portrait after 50 years
  8. The picture as an object in a story
  9. A scene that includes the reaction of someone seeing the painting in the gallery
  10. A letter regarding the commission of the work.

Harmony in Grey and Green: Miss Cicely Alexander 1872-4 by James Abbott McNeill Whistler 1834-1903

With some trepidation I offer some starts to such exercises that I have undertaken recently. These, please note, are responses to prompts, not examples of my polished, edited prose. (Of course I edited them a bit. My inner critic would not let me expose raw text – ‘shitty first drafts’ as Anne Lamott would say in Bird by Bird). The activity is a starter, to prompt the imagination and some writing.

  1. The older brother’s comments.

It always makes me laugh, that hat! D’you remember? If I’ve got it right, it belonged to the Head Gardener’s daughter. It was-

Yes, but Mama had given it to h-

-the only one anyone could find that was green. He insisted on green, that Mr Whistles. Hah! The hat of a gardener’s daughter. How he liked a joke!

Yes but I didn’t have to wear-.

And the feather. I think that came from the milliner’s ragbag.

Yes, but she made the most expensive-

Another of Mr Whistles’s joke. And the veil on your dress!

2. Cecily’s thoughts as she poses

Last year this dress was everything I wanted. Last year! This year it’s just too young. And I hate the way he makes me pose. It’s an older person’s pose. Too young dress, too old pose. Nurse keeps telling me not to put not to slouch. Always not to do something. Oh and now he wants me to hold that hat. It’s not even mine! At least I don’t have to wear it. I wonder if he would notice if I swapped my feet around, put the right one in front? This is so boring, boring, boring. Nurse says again, ‘don’t sulk dear, wind’ll change’.

  1. Cecily’s thoughts 50 years later.

My brother has asked me what he should do with the portrait father had painted of me when I was 14. He’s terminally ill, my brother, and wishes to settle things. We are both in our seventies now, and live worlds away from our childhoods. I inspected the painting as I left his house. How surely even sulky I look, yet at that time I had no cause to be unhappy (except for standing in that frock so still, so long and being fourteen). All the unhappiness of my marriage, the failure of the meat packing business, the Great War which took both my grandsons, and my daughter who died in the influenza epidemic just as it ended. Papa had money, and wanted to show it off, but he behaved like a medieval king in the matter of his daughter’s marriage. Mr Hetherington-Wallace was not as good a match for me as he was for Papa. Papa would have been even more horrified than my son and son-in-law at my involvement with the suffragists. I never wore that hat. It was Mama’s. Mr Whistler purloined it for his picture. It made my hand ache to hold it. Give it to a museum, I told my brother. It’s not me.

  1. Whistler’s letter

Dear Mr Alexander,

I am in receipt of your commission for a portrait of your daughter Cicely. Honoured as I am that you have asked me to undertake this commission following your visit to my studio last month I need to make clear my terms. I do not paint mere portraits, rather studies, etudes in paint. While I fully understand that you wish to favourably place your daughter on the market in society, and a portrait by such an eminent artist as myself would achieve this aim, I have my own purposes for undertaking any commission. My study of colour could be furthered by such an undertaking only so far as your daughter is pretty and well dressed. I desire that she will wear a white dress, and I will visit your house next Thursday to choose the room in which to engage in my art and to arrange any accoutrements for the sitter. I demand complete quiet, no interruptions and absolute silence from my subjects, especially when they are scarcely more than children.

If you can see your way to agreeing to my terms, then I will accept the commission and beg leave to commence in six weeks on the Tuesday morning.

Yours etc


You will notice that I have strayed outside my list, but that I have picked up different voices, different time perspectives, different narrative frames for these little pieces. I should make clear that I have not tried for historical accuracy as I don’t know what happened to Cecily Alexander, and whether she had an older brother; I have been inventive. I notice that it allows for playfulness, or to focus on something out of the obvious.

The activity taps into an amazing aspect of writing, in this case rendering in words something visual. And, in turn, it encourages me to look more attentively at this painting.

Do you have a favourite and/or productive writing activity?


If you want to be notified of further posts please subscribe by entering your email address in the box at the head of the column on the right.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Writing