Tag Archives: Emma Darwin

On-Line Writing Course #4 Revising Structure and Plot

I committed 6 weeks to following an on-line course on self-editing the first draft of my novel. I enjoyed it very much and learned a great deal, and when I finished I drew up a plan for the editing. You can read about my plan here. It involves six stages, each a focus for roughly a month on one aspect of the course. Phase one was structure and plot. Phase 2 is characters.

JG Ballard's edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

JG Ballard’s edit of The Crash, tweeted by @johnnyGeller

It’s time to review how it’s going.

Here are the excuses, aka reasons

  1. All the things I had put to one side so that I could complete the course have claimed my attention since I finished.
  2. I have several writing projects –the blog, a co-authored book, writing groups – and these have also claimed my attention.
  3. I have had other time-consuming activities such as joining a panel at WOW The Truth about Ageing and the City Lit meet the authors event.
  4. All the other time-consuming activities such as walking, grandparenting, seeing friends, going to the opera, a day at the spa, all these have stolen away the days.
  5. Spring means that the desire to spend time in the garden has overwhelmed me, until …
  6. … I got this rotten cough and cold.

So it’s not surprising that my progress has not been as I hoped and envisaged.

What I have done

  1. I have decided on a new structure for the novel, which involves re-ordering half of the chapters, adding a new one and moving some scenes around. Not much re-writing there, but it feels like an important decision as well as the right one and I looked at it carefully before the physical task of renumbering consumed me.
  2. I have read lots of posts on writer Emma Darwin’s excellent blog: This Itch of Writing. I especially liked the one about the exercise where you go through the plot looking at fortunately/unfortunately. This reveals where the plot is engaging and moving forward. For example: ‘Fortunately Lorna’s niece came to stay. Unfortunately the nosey girl opened the box of letters.’
  3. 163 Into woods coverEmma Darwin recommends Into the Woods by John Yorke (Penguin), about story telling. It’s an interesting book about structure, and what keeps a story moving and why we tell stories this way. That’s stories of all kinds: novels, plays, tv series, films etc.
  4. I’ve been reading novels recommended during the course to help me look at structure and also psychic distance. I need to grapple with both of these during my revision.
  5. I’m learning that revision means asking questions, taking a longer view and lots of thinking and considering. At this moment, not so much rewriting. I am predicting that this will change as I move through The Great Plan.
  6. And now I’ve started on the second phase, revising aspects of the characters. I have already redrafted the arrival of the second main character. It’s not tight enough yet, doesn’t quite say enough about her yet, but I’ll get some feedback from a writing group this weekend.

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

    Pencils from tree trunks. Have I bitten off more than I can shew?

Well I’m being systematic, which may not be a good thing. But at least I have a plan and I am following it. When I first tried to revise my first draft I had no real clue what to do. Now I feel a little more in charge. Will it last? Oh I do hope it will last.

Do you have any recommendations for books about revising a first draft?

 

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On-line writing course #3 Finished?

I signed up for a six-week on-line writing course to learn how to edit the first draft of my novel. Longstanding readers of this blog will be aware that my draft has been in a drawer for a long time. I have been busy in the meantime but I was aware I didn’t know how to proceed following the achievement of the first draft.

145 writing keyboardThe course was called Self-Editing Your Novel run by The Writers’ Workshop. It required a payment, joining a website community and a commitment for six weeks. I tried and largely succeeded in giving an hour a day, six days a week for the six weeks. During that time I composed my own questions on each of the six themes, watched the weekly introductory videos, read the tutor notes, composed and posted my homework, read other people’s homework, commented on them, read comments on mine, and paying particular attention to the tutors’ comments on my homework.

The tutors were Emma Darwin and Debi Alper. They demonstrated sensitivity, encouragement, critical commentary, suggestions, occasional ticking off, generosity, as well as deep knowledge and understanding of the processes of novel writing and editing. I am full of admiration for their skills in teaching these.

My aims have been achieved

These were my aims for the course (as reported on a previous post):

  • √ 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.

153 tick153 tick153 tick

Learning

I have learned a lot, not all of it comfortable, about myself as a writer-learner (see my second post on progress). The on-line context became irrelevant once I found my way around.

I have learned a great deal about the process of editing, in each of the 5 categories:

  1. plot,
  2. character,
  3. voice, point of view,
  4. psychic distance and
  5. prose

I have ways of thinking about each of these now, and some activities that will help me see if large-scale revisions are required. I have a notebook full of things to attend to. We were advised not to try to revise our WIP during the course, so these had to be noted down for later. And here we are at ‘later’.

I learned about the power of the group, how encouragement, comments, reactions, questions from others can nudge, push and force writer-learners to see their WIP in new ways.

And I learned about the stimulating, inventive and creative ideas of my fellow novelists.

And while I’ve been learning…

… I have been getting on with blogging, meeting my fellow authors on our non-fiction book for a three day write-in, reading 9 novels, publishing some short fiction (see previous post on this), getting ready for two events to promote Retiring with Attitude, and attending a workshop where I learned how to make a red felt hat. This one!

153 Red hat

What next?

I have a plan. Better than any of Baldrick’s plans.

It includes completing the revision of my novel by the end of August when I am due to go on a trip abroad. I will revise it to the level where I feel a professional critique would be the best next step. So not finished then.

Many thanks

To Emma Darwin, Debi Alper, The Writers’ Workshop website and my fellow participants.

 

Previous posts about this course.

  1. An On-line Writing Course #1 Purposes
  2. On-line Writing Course #2 in-progress

 

What has been your best learning from writing courses? Can you say what helped make it a good learning experience? Would you recommend the course to others?

 

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Never mind teaching it – can you learn creative writing?

You’ve heard this question before I’m sure: Can creative writing be taught? Eminent writers periodically get involved in spats on this issue. Recently one was set off by Hanif Kureishi (who teaches creative writing at the University of Kingston).  He appears to despise his students, suggesting that the vast majority of them ‘are talentless’. Lucy Ellman, novelist and ex-creative writing teacher, joined in and called creative writing courses ‘the biggest con-job in academia’.

Teaching creative writing courses has its defenders: Jeanette Winterton (at Manchester University) and bloggers Emma Darwin and Shelley Harris. Tales from the Reading Room has an excellent post about learning on a writing course.

Let’s remember that writers need to earn enough to live on. Where would they be without us amateurs to add to their income? According to The Independent, Kureishi said that having three sons means that he has to earn money from writing in any way he can.

90 First NovelAnd some write creatively about it: the blurb for First Novel by Nicholas Royle says it’s a ‘darkly funny examination of the relative attractions of creative writing courses and suburban dogging sites …’ Hmmmm.

What success criteria do the doubters have in mind? I suspect that they judge a course by the publication rate. Kureishi however suggests he is offering therapy. Really?

I am concerned for those people who attend courses to improve their writing, and whose primary objective is not publication, or therapy. Moving the focus away from publication means emphasising improvements that the writer him/herself wants to make and this leads me to ask a different question about creative writing courses: can writers learn from them, and if so what and how? I’ve spent my career in education, and found that focusing on learning (rather than teaching) opens up many possibilities for thinking in new ways.

Learning on creative writing courses.

The best learning has four characteristics:

  1. It connects with the learners’ intentions,
  2. is active,
  3. collaborative and
  4. concerned with learning about the learning.

How does this apply to creative writing classes?

Learners’ intentions

Most participants (maybe all) come to classes and workshops wanting to improve their writing. Listen to those writers in that introductory round: I want learn to end my short stories, I have lots of bits but I don’t know what to do with them, I have some great ideas but I don’t know where to start, I write lots of poems but I don’t know if they are any good …

Active learning

Most writing classes are active and not just in the sense of the pen moving across the page, the fingers moving on the keyboard. I mean active in the sense that participants have to process the topic being explored, do something with it, exercise imagination, draw together some unlikely words and images.

Here’s an example of a 30 minute activity from RAM museum workshop last month: in 5 minutes, find an object; write three words about it and note the desire/want/need that a character associated with the object is pursuing; write for 15 minutes; take ten minutes to go over what you have done.

90 teapotI found this teapot. It stretched me to put it in a brief piece of writing, but the time pressure and the constraints of the activity worked for me. (I’m not going to share the outcome of the teapot focus, but the activity was helpful for thinking about objects, and some of it will be echoed in my novel revisions.)

Collaborative learning

This for me is the most productive aspect of learning on courses – working with other writers works. We are all writers, we can say. We can encourage each other, and provide responses and feedback. Our fellow participants can provide stimulating examples, innovative ideas. And from time to time you write something you wouldn’t have written without the presence of another writer. It might have been their example, a comment they made, an idea they sparked, an image they provided, a word they used.

Learning about learning

The best classes provide opportunities for reflecting on how different people learn, for being mindful about their learning: what are the effects of pressure, of a new approach and so on. It is a skill to reflect on process and be mindful of the activities that were helpful. It’s a skill that can be learned.

Now it is quite possible to experience all these four characteristics of learning in other contexts. This means, of course, that creative writing courses are not essential to writers’ development. There are books, magazines, blogs, and mentoring and editorial services. But none of these are quite as much fun, I suspect, as those Saturday morning assemblies of ten or so people (mainly women) who rack up in some poky room in a cold community hall and gaze in anticipation at the tutor.

Do you have anything to add to the debate about teaching and learning creative writing?

 

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Good Morning, Midnight by Jean Rhys

‘No one who has read Jean Rhys’s first four novels [Good Morning, Midnight was her fourth] can suppose that she was good at life; but no one who never met her could know how very bad at it she was,’ says Diana Athill in Stet. The story of Jean Rhys’s life is remarkable. And her writing is also remarkable and ahead of its time, but, observes Diana Athill, ‘how this hopelessly inept, seemingly incomplete woman could write with such clarity, power and grace remains a mystery.’ While Jean Rhys mined her own life for the material for her novels, we should not make too much of this she warned us:

All of a writer that matters is in the book. It is idiotic to be curious about the person. (tweet from @Standoutbooks)

We can agree with the first half of that quotation without feeling idiotic about our curiosity.

The first four novels were published between the wars, Good Morning, Midnight in 1939. After the war it was thought that Jean Rhys was dead, until in 1957 she answered an advertisement seeking information about ‘the late Jean Rhys’. A BBC radio play of Good Morning, Midnight performed by Selma vaz Dias was being prepared.  Jean Rhys was living in penury in Cornwall, and lived on until 1979, publishing her most celebrated book Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966.

Good M Mid

Good Morning, Midnight is set in Paris in October 1937. The Englishwoman Sophia (aka Sasha) Jansen is staying in a hotel, thanks to a friend. The novel is told by Sasha, as thoughts are going through her head, so that she shifts place and time frequently, but never looses the reader. As well as the present time, we see earlier times in Paris, and in Brussels. Her voice is unrelenting, bleak, sometimes telling herself to stop speaking, sometimes saying what she would like to be saying out loud, or ventriloquising a room as in the opening paragraph.

 ‘Quite like old times,’ the room says. ‘Yes? No?’

There are two beds, a big one for madame and a smaller one on the opposite side for monsieur. The wash-basin is shut off by a curtain. It is a large room, the smell of cheap hotels faint, almost imperceptible. The street outside is narrow, cobble-stoned, going sharply uphill and ending in a flight of steps. What they call an impasse.

I have been here five days. I have decided on a place to eat in at midday, a place to eat in at night, a place to have my drink in after dinner. I have arranged my little life.

In these first 100 words she establishes her relationship with the reader, who sees at once an odd, idiosyncratic figure, alone, impoverished, revisiting her past life. The hotel is shabby, bleak – no colour is mentioned. Her stay in Paris will be like the view out of her window, uphill, an impasse. Very quickly she persuades us that Sasha is ‘an inefficient member of Society, slow in the uptake, uncertain, slightly damaged in the fray’.

41 young j Rhys

Sasha is not an easy person: she does not find life easy and nor do other people find her easy to deal with. There is a line that we have all noticed, as we hover near in alcohol, depression, penury, sickness or hopelessness. We struggle to keep this side of the line at all costs. Sasha has crossed the line for good. She is unable to follow her own arrangements for her ‘little life’. She constantly tells herself not to go in that bar, not to have another drink, but immediately enters the bar, orders drink after drink, meets people and suffers from their looks or comments. She knows that she is one of those people whose eye you try not to catch, who you try to ignore on the street. She does not belong, not in her cheap room off Gray’s Inn Road nor in Paris. Her solution is ‘the bright idea of drinking myself to death.’

I have no pride – no pride, no name, no face, no country. I don’t belong anywhere. Too sad, too sad. … It doesn’t matter, there I am, like one of those straws which floats round the edge of a whirlpool and is gradually sucked into the centre, the dead centre, where everything is stagnant, everything is calm. Two-pound-ten a week and a room just off the Gray’s Inn Road. …

She attracts the people who prey off other people; other hotel guests, two Russians, a painter and a gigolo. He does not believe that she has no money. But she feels safe in her poverty. There is nothing further for him to take from her, she believes. It is in the sexual transactions of this world that destitution is clearest. But the final pages of the novel are chilling, shocking. It is always possible, it seems, to slip further away on the wrong side of that line.

Jean Rhys makes a powerful impression on the reader. Who can forget the image of Mr Rochester from the attic in The Wide Sargasso Sea? And who can escape the discomfort of this earlier novel, largely because of what Emma Darwin refers to (in a short blog review) as ‘admitting the reader so absolutely to a consciousness at once so helpless and sharp-eyed’. Linda Grant, writing about Rhys in the My Hero column in the Guardian in February this year describes the effect of her style.

When I read Rhys, I lost interest in fireworks in fiction. Sentence after apparently unremarkable sentence would pass until suddenly you would feel yourself hit in the solar plexus by the accumulated tension. I would look back and ask: how did you do that?

Some of the writing is even surreal, some captures the desperation of the life led in isolation, and some is joyful and funny. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is what AL Kennedy, in her introduction, calls ‘her eloquence in the language of human sexual transactions, chilling, cynical and surprisingly moving’. It is her attitude to sexual transactions, that shocks, even while she craves closeness and will invent it with strangers to stave off bleakness, when alcohol doesn’t do it.

Her achievement, according to Emma Darwin, ‘is in her pitch-perfect depiction – and thereby her validation – of female consciousness and experiences when the lives of women (and the novels written about them) were thought duller, smaller and less interesting than those of (and written by) men. …there’s no self pity there, only a painfully acute self-knowledge.’

I can see her book would be shocking to the inter-war readers: it’s still shocking today. But although disturbing to read, it is also very powerful and affecting. And we should not make too much of her chaotic life as we now can treasure her amazing prose.

41 jean-rhys

Further Reading:

Biography by Carol Angier new edition (2011, fp 1990)

Stet: an editor’s life by Diana Athill (2000)

 

REMINDER: if you have a recommendation for the September Readalong, please mention it in the comments box, on this page or on the ‘about the book group’ page. Thanks Marianne for the recommendation for this book.

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