Tag Archives: Your Writing Coach

Nevertheless She Persisted

Senator Elizabeth Warren tried to read a letter by the widow of Martin Luther King. It argued against Session’s nomination for the role of Attorney General because he had used his position to prevent black voter registration in Alabama. Senator Elizabeth Warren was warned to stop reading. She didn’t stop. Senator McConnell made the famous/infamous statement:

She was warned. She was given an explanation. Nevertheless, she persisted.

Her persistence led to the creation of the hashtags #shepersisted and #NeverthelessShePersisted. I like persisters. I think it is especially appropriate for political struggle, and also for women writers. Which can be the same thing, of course.

Mandatory Credit: Photo by AP/REX/Shutterstock (8325697b)
Holding a transcript of her speech in the Senate Chamber, Senator Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass. reacts to being rebuked by the Senate leadership and accused of impugning a fellow senator, Attorney General-designate, Senator Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., on Capitol Hill in Washington. Warren was barred from saying anything more on the Senate floor about Sessions after she quoted from an old letter from Martin Luther King Jr.’s widow about Sessions
Senate Warren Breaking Rules, Washington, USA – 08 Feb 2017

Persistence

Sticking at it in the face of opposition, that’s what persistence means to me. For women the opposition can be in the form of a person in authority blocking their way, as for Senator Elizabeth Warren, or Vera Brittain’s determination to study at Oxford in 1914 despite her father’s refusal. Or it can be persistence in the face of cultural opposition such as the Suffragettes’ activism, or women seeking to join the professions. My examples refer to opposition based on gender, but many have experienced opposition on other grounds and also needed persistence to overcome obstacles.

Persistence for Writers

Writers need persistence in bucketfuls. Writing takes a long time, to learn the craft and to produce writing of quality, especially large projects such as novels, other books, play scripts and screenplays. And there are other challenges:

  • It’s lonely work
  • Life gets in the way
  • Many writers face self-doubt
  • Imposter Syndrome
  • A writer’s inner critic
  • External critics
  • Rejection (see below)

Women writers can expect some addition obstacles:

  • Less exposure
  • The pram in the hall
  • Shorter history to draw on (see A Room of One’s Own)
  • Cultural expectations of women’s writing

Jane Austen, Winchester Cathedral. Photo credit: Jayembee69 on Visual hunt / CC BY-NC-SA

Rejections

All writers need to be able to face rejection. It’s always reassuring to hear how many rejections were received by writers later credited with great work.

William Golding received 20 rejections for Lord of the Flies.

Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 was turned down by 22 publishers

Carrie by Stephen King was rejected 30 times.

Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind was rejected 38 times.

Anne Frank’s Diary was rejected by 15 publishers.

To be rejected that many times I note takes persistence.

Not even getting to rejection

Many women’s lives are so busy and occupied with care of others that they may not get to prepare writing for publication until quite late in life. Mary Wesley published her first adult novel at 61. Laura Ingelis Wilder, author of Little House on the Prairie, published her first novel at 64. These two writers both turned to writing in times of financial need. Anita Brookner published her first book at 53. Anne Goodwin, author of Sugar and Snails and Underneath refers to herself as an ‘elderly prima-authorista’.

Practising Persistence

Persistence is a quality needed by writers. But how can they acquire and develop it? Julia Cameron, who pioneered the idea of Morning Pages, wrote recently (August 2017) about their value to her.

For more than 25 years, I have faithfully written Morning Pages – three pages of longhand stream of consciousness that serves to unlock my creativity, guiding me a page at a time into my future. The pages, I often say, are like lanterns—illuminating the path ahead. I write them daily, aware that skipping them leads back to blocks. The faithful practice of pages leads to freedom. They bring ease and inspiration to my life. (MindBodyGreen)

And the first thing she learned is that persistence paid off. Regular writing, not for publication, is practised by many writers. It gets creative juices going.

Dealing with the obstacles that require persistence is the focus of several chapters in Jurgen Woolf’s Your Writing Coach. One section is called Persist! and in it he offers practical approaches to some difficulties: space, isolation, critics, finding time. And some ways to speak to yourself about keeping going. I especially like the advice, to be good to yourself.

So, fellow women writers, Persist! For my sanity I need per-sisters!

Your Writing Coach by Jurgen Woolf, published in 2012 by Nicholas Brealey.

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Re-Introducing My Inner Critic

It was four years ago that I exposed readers of my blog to my inner critic. The feisty critter is still doing his thing, but I have to admit that I quite enjoy the antics, and naming them. I love my inner critic more now, because I have learned to trust that judgement.

I still haven’t finished revising my novel. Perhaps very soon …? I offer this slightly revised version of a post first published on Bookword in March 2013.

My Inner Critic appears on a train

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

He’s a bit of an animal

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started your novel in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually on active duty in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Living with your Inner Critic

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

And since then?

And since I first posted this in March 2013 I have a second grandson, but no students or coaches, I’ve moved down to the West Country and I’ve co-written and published two more books (not novels). I have also learned to quieten the worst excesses of my Inner Critic, even to put him in a drawer [IC: Oi Again!]. But I have also learned to take account of what my Inner Critic is saying, and to improve my writing through this.

Over to you

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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Introducing my Inner Critic

I retrieved the first draft of my novel from the drawer after two months and prepared to revise and redraft. First, I engaged in some pencil sharpening-type activities such as printing out good copies of several chapters, buying a dark green ring folder, punching holes, placing all 22 chapters in it and lining up the pages to achieve an impressive manuscript.

I had decided to read it on a train journey. I frequently read drafts of writing by my students’ and coachees’ on train journeys – three hours to Totnes and three hours back to London Paddington. (My grandson believes I live in Londonpaddington. I think I live on the train.) So, I had a three-hour journey to read the first draft of my own novel.

I began, reasonably enough, with Chapter One. At this point, my Inner Critic flopped down in the adjoining seat. You’ll need me! he announced. My Inner Critic always turns up and demands attention when I am reading my own drafts. He looks a little like that spicy peperami sausage with threadlike arms and jerky legs and a sharp voice who was featured on adverts a few years ago. He’s a bit of an animal. And he smells! [IC: Oi!]

peperami

I read Chapter Two. I had decided to read the novel all through to get an overall sense of it, before considering the more detailed revisions and redrafting. My Inner Critic kicked his spiky legs back and forth and took in a few sharp breaths. If I had succumbed and looked at him I am sure I would have seen him wincing in a stagey look-at-me-wincing kind of way.

Chapter Three. You started it in the wrong place, announced IC. I tried to ignore him and made a note on the third page of the chapter (‘start here’). The barracking continued. Too much summary! Get on with it! I squiggle a line in the margin and made a note on the manuscript. (‘Replace with action?’)

By the end of Chapter Four IC was jumping up and down in the seat like an over-excited schoolboy. He managed to tip up the folder and it fell onto the floor. Some of the pages were creased and others smeared with a little mud. IC jumped to his feet and ran down the aisle whooping loudly. It was the quiet carriage and I am usually active in the Quiet Coach Vigilante Squad so I was a little embarrassed. IC stood at the very end of the carriage, the place where the train manager, as she calls herself, has a little office with a PA system and quite possibly an easy chair or two. IC had his bottom on the door and was bending over with laughter. I reclaimed the folder, and tried to return to my work. But I couldn’t even start Chapter Five because my Inner Critic was stamping down the aisle and when he came to our seats he stopped and held his sides like a comedy clown, jerking with laughter.

A writer, he gasped, pointing at me. Call yourself a writer when you produce chapters like those! And off he ran again, bouncing on the empty seats and jumping up to swing on the luggage racks.

I smoothed down the pages and then stared out of the window. IC approached. Hope I haven’t offended you, he said, possibly noticing my inability to continue reading. On a post-it note I wrote ‘start chapters with dates’. He peered at what I had written. That wont fix it! he announced.

No, I say, it won’t fix it. But it’s a start. Now sit down, be quiet and behave like a grown-up Inner Critic. Huh! he snorted. But he did.

Stephen King suggests that reading your draft after a break will be ‘a strange and often exhilaration experience’ (in On Writing, p253). He offers some valuable possibilities: being able to see glaring holes in plot or character development; asking questions about coherence, the work of the recurring elements; finding the resonance in the novel. While he does say ‘if you spot a few of these big holes, you are forbidden to feel depressed about them or to beat up on yourself’ he gives no advice I could apply to my Inner Critic. [IC: Stephen King doesn’t need an inner critic, whereas you …]

But in Jurgen Wolff’s Your Writing Coach I have found a chapter called Tame the Wild Inner (and Outer) Critic. And there’s a seven-step programme for dealing with this harshest of all critics. [IC: tremble, tremble, NOT!] Actually, there is no trembling required because I already know that my Inner Critic has some really useful ways of helping me. I just hate it when he goes wild.

Has anyone got any more advice about calming and enjoying my inner critic? What does your inner critic do?

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What shall I do with the drunken story?

My short story is drunk and I don’t know what to do with it. Back when I merely dabbled in writing, I believed that my first version was it – a polished version straight off. Nowadays I have moved far, far away from this. I find it hard to stop editing. I usually tell myself to stop when I find myself checking the commas. But between the first version and that final comma, that’s where my problems lie.

It’s in its first draft this story. It is a kind of drunken version of what I imagined. Sober characters lurch about in the 2000 words, horizons shift with each paragraph, and people in the background are too loud.

I have five weeks to fix it. To start with, I could put it in the drawer with my novel (see previous post). Just for a week. But if I do that I think my novel would be so disgusted it would climb out and I wouldn’t see it again. I think I need to have a go at the draft and sort it out.

Can I get it to stand upright, or in other words, is there a story here?

There is a good strong idea, which also happens to have a good image at the core of the story. I have a narrative, but it feels choppy. So I need to check this: narrative + good idea = story?

To fix the narrative I could apply the famous eight point story arc. But I’d get squiffy thinking about stasis, trigger, quest, surprise, critical choice, climax, reversal and resolution. In fact I could use many of the 2000 words just arcing the thing.

I prefer to use the fairy story spine. You know, once upon a time there was a young woman called Tilly, who had lived with her aunt and uncle since her mother was killed in the Blitz. One day Tilly meets Henry and falls in love … So far so good. Because of that … Something a little bad needs to happen. It does. Then something really bad happens. It does. Until finally … And then Tilly finds she has obtained more than she expected but not what she originally wanted and she’s the better for it. They all live happily ever after (except Henry). I found the story spine idea in Jurgen Wolff’s useful book Your Writing Coach on p95.

I need to know Tilly a little better. It’s her story. I like to use character questionnaires to find out all those things that help imagine the character: big things like how old she is, the colour of her eyes, and little things like, what does she always have with her? And what gesture does she use? It helps that I like Tilly. I could use Jenny Alexander’s five points suggested on her blog Writing in the House of Dreams: name, appearance, something they love, and hate, a special object. What does this character keep in their pocket, a suggestion in a comment.

And I need to do the same with Henry. I’m not so keen on Henry. But he deserves to be authentic and full-bodied, all the same.

And I need to do a little more research on that period immediately after World War II. That wont be a hardship as I love researching, and that period is of great interest to me. I’ve just reread The Girls of Slender Means, by Muriel Spark, and noticed that she locates her short novel very precisely between VE and VJ Days. I need bomb damage and shortages and – you’ve heard this word recently – austerity. I must check out the details.

camay

And then I can start on the adverbs, adjectives, nouns and verbs, in a close edit. I found the ideas of Noah Lukeman in The First Five Pages, very helpful in this respect. After all, a short story is the first five pages.

OK, the story feels a little less drunk. Now what next?

Well, of course, I could go and pour myself a drink and get going.

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