Category Archives: Teaching

Damo’s 4 step crash course in writing good

I am a vocal advocate of the ONE TRUTH when it comes to writing and publishing – that the only thing which comes close to a guarantee of success in this field is to Get Good At Writing. At which point someone inevitably shouts DAN BROWN at me and I say, yesbut even Dan Brown is actually pretty good at writing techno-thrillers. The one thing successful writers really do have in common is the ability to write, and pretty damn well in most cases.

I think anyone with the desire can learn to write fiction in 3 to 5 years from a standing start. (That learning process never ends but it can plateau sufficiently to start publishing). But like those podgy celebrities who disappear for six months and then come back as muscular love gods, it’s also possible to do things MUCH more quickly IF you have the motivation. If someone were to turn up on my doorstep with a Significant Sum of Money and demand to learn the secrets of fiction writing in 6 months, I would take the cash and set them the following curriculum.

Imagination

You already have an imagination, right? Maybe. But if you’re a typical citizen of the 21st century it’s well hidden underneath your target acquisition system attenuated for urban and media rich environments. Wu-huh what Damo?

use-the-force-luke_o_320659

Let me simplify what is a rather more complex issue. Say that your mind has two different ways of thinking. Let’s call the first way your Small Mind. Your Small Mind does most of the stuff you generally think of when you think about your mind at all. It’s your Small Mind that navigates its way around a supermarket looking for beef steaks and peanut butter. If you get paid for a job of work, it’s likely a Small Mind activity that you’re being paid for. Manipulating spreadsheets is a proto-typical Small Mind job. As is most of the mundane stuff we do day to day.

When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Some things your Small Mind has little to do with – breathing, regulating your body’s intricate nervous system, and writing. Imagine trying to *consciously* manage the bazillion different things your body is doing at even given moment, from digesting food to manufacturing blood cells. Your brain is doing all this stuff, but the last thing it needs is your Small Mind asking silly questions and worrying about stuff. So it does all the essential work in the background and then alerts your Small Mind on the rare occasions it’s presence is required. This total capacity of your brain to do all the important shit without telling you is your Big Mind.

Have you ever wondered why ideas for stories seem to come out of nowhere? That’s Big Mind doing all the really hard work in the background – weaving the threads of plot, character and theme to make a cool story – then tapping you on the shoulder and saying “here ya go…all done!” And what do we do? Mostly we ignore Big Mind and because Small Mind thinks it knows how to do it all. And so  the great stories of your imagination die, and instead you fight to consciously construct something that should properly be born in dreams. When Big Mind speaks, learn to shut up and listen.

Words, Sentences, Paragraphs

Buy a good book on English language grammar and usage and read it cover to cover.  Twice. List your twelve all time favourite novels and re-read them with a stack of coloured highlighters to hand. Study how the writers you love use language. Because it’s right down in the words, sentences and paragraphs that writing happens. Bad writing is like a Hollywood movie made with ugly actors on drab locations using Hi8 camcorders. Prose fiction only exists as words, sentences and pragraphs on a page, if they suck, so does the fiction. Our educational system leaves many people intimidated by the English language. Don’t be. This is the easiest of problems to solve. But it has to *be* solved before you can do most anything else. Think of it as your basic fitness. You can’t build rippling pectorals until you can run a few kilometres without wheezing, and you won’t write a magnificent story until you can fluently lay down language on the page.

Commercial Prose Style

This is where shit gets controversial. Being creative means being original, right? Well, Yes&No. Even the most original art is only about 3% original (I have literally plucked that figure from THIN AIR but will now fight to defend it) while the other 97% is re-combinatorial, IE parts stolen from other things then stitched together in to a Frankenstein’s Monster of a creation (there, you now also know what Frankenstein is really about). This, incidentally, is why knowing the history of your creative form is useful / essential, because that history shows you how all the different parts were reinvented and recycled by each new generation.

Style is the most obviously unoriginal part of most fiction. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story. But in practice the vast majority of stories are written in four styles, that constitute the four key styles of commercial fiction. If you want to shortcut a vast amount of hard work, then learn parrot fashion how to write one or two of these styles. You will be limited as a writer, but you won’t be alone. Must first time published authors can only write one style effective, usually but not always the one their published book is written in. Some, for reasons I do not fully comprehend, some can’t even write one style effectively, instead veering from style to style sometimes within a single paragraph. Sigh.

crash

Dramatic Structure

This is where you take all ideas of originality and toss them away. If you play music you’ll know that all popular songs have a verse, chorus and bridge, in various combination. Similarly, all stories have a beginning, middle and end, commonly rephrased as Act Onem Act Two and Act Three. Three act structure ladies and gentlemen, love it or hate it, you will never escape it. (There are alternatives but not on our 6 month body beautiful crash course) You can reshape it to 5 acts if you wish, it remains fundamentally the same thing. In there somewhere you’ll need an Inciting Incident, some Rising Action, a Mid-Point Twist, coherent Beats, Scenes and Sequences, and a well fashioned Crisis, Climax, Resolution to end things. BUT YOU’RE MAKING US WRITE A FORMULA. No, I’m making you write a structure. Like the verse, chorus, bridge of a pop song you can turn that structure in to the Rolling Stones or Eminem, but you can’t escape the structure itself. Three act structure is the structure of pretty much every story you have ever encountered in any medium. That’s how important it is.

These are of course basics. But they are probably enough to get you over the line and writing something, if not perfect, then at least interesting. And as any artist knows, interesting is ten times better than perfect, by any measure.

About these ads

The one key secret of creating compelling characters

I had never heard of Emily Gould until I learned that she was being reinvented in the pages of the New York Times. Gould, I have learned, was a particularly aggressive blogger of personal confession and celebrity gossip, who has now graduated to becoming a semi-auobiographical novelist. Not an uncommon progression, in a time when an author’s blog is more read than their novels.

Funny, vicious and nakedly irreverent, her posts were so aggressive at times that they managed to incense even the customarily affable Jimmy Kimmel. While sitting in for Larry King on Mr. King’s talk show in 2007, he called her out on the show for irresponsible reporting and flagrant invasions of privacy. “You throw rocks at celebrities,” he scolded, then told her straight-faced: “I would hate to see you arriving in hell, and somebody writing a text message and saying, ‘Guess who’s here.’ ”

Looking back on the episode, the first of a series of public excoriations, Ms. Gould acknowledged, “I probably went around systematically rubbing people the wrong way for the first part of my career.”

via Reinventing Emily Gould – NYTimes.com.

All too often it’s the authors who shout loudest and generate the most controversy who come out on top in the blogosphere and associated social media tributaries. It can seem at times that aggression and indeed raw hate are the fuel that makes a literary career. It’s an irony, when what we so often seek in literature is wisdom, that literature’s creators display so little of it. But it’s not the hate on display that makes these writers such compelling magnets for our attention. At least not entirely.

The playwright David Mamet in his book True and False: Heresy and Common Sense for the Actor argues that one key quality makes both a great character and a great writer. The reason writers can create stories that compel our attention is because they possess the key quality that our attention is most attracted to. And when I think through the stories that I am most compulsively drawn to, and the people who wrote them, I find I have to agree.

The quality that Mamet suggests is willpower. You might choose to label it ambition, ego, pride or self-centredness. But willpower is the word I think works best. The ways that willpower sometimes manifests itself can be off putting – aggression, hate, anger. However it can also manifest in far more charming ways – humour, whit, intelligence. But whatever form it takes, willpower is always compelling. At it’s most basic, willpower is the struggle of the individual human against the vast forces of society, the world, the entire universe, that conspire to keep us in our place. There isn’t a person alive who isn’t fascinated by those people who fight in the face of such untenable odds.

But. I don’t believe the best stories – or indeed the best anything – are made purely by force of will. Great artists don’t beat the world in to shape. Or even charm it to do their will. They move in harmony with their universe. They sense the larger forces that animate the world and give it meaning, and create the conditions that channel and express those forces as art. We don’t necessarily recognise art of this kind. It does not always demonstrate the force of will that commands our attention. Which leads me to suggest that if we want art of this greater kind in our lives, we need to look beyond the strong willed artists bellowing for attention, to the quiet creators who know they do not need it.

Use Fiction Techniques to Write a Great Journal Article

damiengwalter:

It’s really hard to overstate how much I agree with this post on using fiction techniques in journalism. Short form and blogging may not leave much scope for storytelling, but once you get up in to long form and feature writing, narrative techniques become essential. Facts nad information won’t hold a reader for thousands of words. You need characters and emotions to do that. You need story.

Originally posted on Dynamic Ecology:

There are a number of good posts out there on how to write a good journal article and even a whole blog devoted to the topic; many of them are linked to in the comments section of my post on writing style.

Here I want to elevate above the nuts-and-bolts sentence-level-detail of my post on writing style* and even elevate above the aforementioned posts that break down different sections of a paper and zoom out to 100,000 feet and think really strategically about writing a paper.

In my experience as a student committee member and as an associate editor for three journals I must have seen many 100s if not at this point 1000s of pre-publication articles. And they are varied. But many of them are by already good writers in the sense of clear, fluid English that understands well the purpose of each of the four sections (intro, methods, results…

View original 1,817 more words

Capitalism dialogues with Creativity

Capitalist - Right. We need you to create something so we have something to sell.

Creator - oh ok no problem just give me a moment here.

Capitalist - noweneeditnow

Creator - But I’m kind of busy…

Capitalist - NOW!

Creator - …creating something here.

Capitalist - What? What are you creating? Tell us tell us tell us!!

Creator - Er. It’s just like this thing I imagined and now I’m kind of just, er, like…

Capitalist - What’s the elevator pitch?

Creator - The what??

Capitalist - The high concept! The Unique Selling Point! You know, the thing you tell important people so they’ll see the commercial potential in your pitiful dreams?

Creator - I guess I never thought about it that way.

Capitalist - What other thing is it like? Try combining two existing commercially successful things together. “It’s like The Wizard of Oz directed by Quentin Tarantino” or “The Sopranos meets Sesame Street.”

Creator - It’s like the colour between green and yellow, as reimagined by a benign and blissful deity.

Capitalist - No that isn’t working for me.

Creator - I am so sorry.

Capitalist - What we need is something just like the last thing we had.

Creator - Won’t that bore the people who saw it the first time?

Capitalist - Yes. We need something completely different. But exactly the same.

Creator - Why don’t you ask the last person who created something for you to sell?

Capitalist – They want too much money.

Creator - How much do you pay?

Capitalist - We can offer great exposure.

Creator - Just wait a moment while I expose my ass.

Capitalist - And I know a great coke dealer.

Creator - Look. Maybe I can just make something cool and we can see how it goes.

Capitalist -

Creator - Are you ok? You look kind of pale.

Capitalist - What. If. It. Doesn’t. Boxoffice?

Creator - I guess that’s a risk.

Capitalist - RISK? Do you know how many hundreds of millions of dollars we’re investing in your project?

Creator – Er…look…about that. There’s really no need. I got some pens and paper, and an old Kodak camera, and some friends are coming over later and we’re going to sink a few and just make shit up. Hey, you ok? You really don’t look too good?

 

Writing Practice – why it’s time to stop thinking of writing as a profession

If you go to a good art school (and yes you STEM readers out there, such places do exist) they teach you to think of your art as a practice. And yourself as a practitioner. There’s a purpose to this tradition, although admittedly it takes most art students – myself included – until well after they graduate and are in to their practice to understand why.

Before I say more about practice, I should say why I think this idea is useful at this time for writers. Today the writing world is in a certain amount of turmoil. Digital technology means that the limitations imposed by print have evaporated overnight. And although the change could be seen coming long ago, many writers and publishers are struggling psychologically to adapt. Questions like whether it is still possible to earn a living as a writer, whether self-publishing is a viable route for writers, and in particular who qualifies as a “professional” writer at a time when a personal blog can have more readers than a national newspaper, are much under discussion. And I think the confused welter of responses all stem at heart from two incongruent perceptions of writing – one belonging to the print age, and one the digital.

That word “professional” is one to think on. In the still recent past professional writers were those who produced content for the print publishing industry, for which in return they were paid. Today that line around professional is a lot less clear. A self-published Kindle author or a blogger pushing traffic to Google Adsense account might be considered professionals. They can certainly be making much more money in some cases. But the status of professional, I believe, is still what most writers crave on some level. I also believe that the best thing any writer who wants to become a professional can do, is to stop thinking of writing as a profession at all.

And start thinking of it as a practice.

What do artists mean by the term “practice”. I’m going to put forward three meanings for the term, all of them useful. But perhaps the third is the most significant.

Practice 1 - When asked about the sticky question of “making it” the comedian Steve Martin says “be so good they can’t ignore you”. That’s not a message a celebrity saturated, get rich quick culture likes to hear. And it’s sometimes disturbing how many people bring that mentality to writing. Of all the ways you might try to grasp at fame and fortune, writing is possibly the most masochistic. As I’ve stated *repeatedly* before on this blog, the only way to achieve anything that resembles traditional perceptions of “success” as a writer is to get very good at writing. And yes, even Dan Brown, E L James and Stephanie Meyer are good writers. Within the bounds of what they do, they excel. And once you get beyond the outliers who achieve fame and fortune with a little luck, you find the large number of writers who  sustain a career are all good at what they do. Want a long lived career as a feature journalist? You’ll need to be as good as these Pultizer prize winners. Getting that good at anything means practice. And if you want to get that good at writing, then writing is the thing, day in and day out, that you will have to practice. And that does not means just doing – it means studying, reflecting, and critically appraising your own work. There’s no getting around it, if you want to be a writer you’re going to have to practice and study just as hard as you would for any other advanced career.

Practice 2 - Doctors, lawyers and architects also have a practice. But commonly we talk about a legal practice, we mean a business. These are professionals who build a unique skill set, expertise, or creative style. A General Practitioner might have broad knowledge of may disciplines but they have unique knowledge of their patients. Lawyers have areas of expertise and hold delicate and confidential information on their clients. To succeed at the highest levels architects must develop a unique style and vision, like but unlike any other before or after. The business of these professionals – their practice – builds around them as their expertise grow and their relationships to their clients expands. And writers are no different. Haruki Murakami – by any measure among the most successful writers of the today – puts his success down to the fact that he writes books that hook people. And over the decades of his career, millions of people have been hooked by his books. So when he publishes a new one, it sells millions. How different is that to the absurd idea held by many genre and self-published writers that they can “build” a career by flooding stories in to the world at a rate of 10,000 words a day – or 80,000 words in a weekend! - that will sweep them to fame  and fortune. Successful writers build their practice book by book, reader by reader.

Practice 3 - For most of my 20s I helped people with writing. I don’t mean helped them learn to write, although in my 30s I’ve now taught creative writing at a dozen or so universities. No. I ran writing workshops and community projects that used writing to help people. Sometimes that meant working with kids. Sometimes old people. Sometimes people with poor mental health. Sometimes people with addictions. Or people who were just poor and lonely and depressed. I wrote a little about this for Aeon magazine last year. One of the things I learnt – and I mean really learnt in the you won’t stick your hand in the fire again kind of way – is that you can’t help people. You can only be there as they help themselves. Which is, when you think about it, much harder. The other thing I learnt is that there is a reason why so many people are drawn to writing. And I’d guess at least a quarter of all people feel a serious draw, at some point in their lives, to expressing themselves seriously in words. And a proportion of those will pursue it. But this isn’t idleness, vanity or ego driving them. Writing, as people explore its potential, is a tremendous tool for growth and development. When someone feels the draw to write, they’re feeling the same draw a daisy feels to turn its face up to the sun. All of us, even those professional writers among us, write to connect with a source of nourishment inside us, without which our souls shrivel up and die. As Ray Bradbury said in Zen in the Art of Writing, if he went a day without writing, he felt restless. Two days, sick. Three days and he felt his mind falling apart.

There’s a term for something that we do that feeds our being in this way. It’s a spiritual practice. Or if that term offends you might call it a health practice. Although in the final account, our spirit and our health are one and the same. I’ve had a meditation practice now for five or six years. It began with sitting on a mat every morning for 30 minutes watching my thoughts. Now it extends in to most of my day, cultivating awareness of the present moment as I experience it. It’s been invaluable to my happiness. And so has my writing practice. When we write, we’re drawing on our deep imagination, that blooms from the unconscious mind where our dreams our kept. And we combine that imagination with language, the very mechanism of our conscious mind. That’s hard. It takes practice. And it is sooooo good for you. Writing is for the mind as running is for the body. Sitting down with a blank page, grasping an image from the imagination and spinning it out in to language is something I do every day. I almost take it for granted. Except when I teach workshops, I see what a revelation it is to people who perhaps never in their lives had that experience. Right there inside everyone – and I do mean everyone without exception – is a wellspring of imagination. Some people struggle with the language to express it. Others have to much language, it gets in the way of the imagination. Different kinds of blocks. But all of them can be worked out.

Really these three meanings of practice are all parts of the same process. You’re drawn to something that you want to excel at, writing for instance, so you begin to practice. That practice, of course, is great for you. It is part of growing and developing as a full human being. And over time as your practice develops, it can also become a profession. Because if you get good enough, they can’t ignore you. As I said up at the top of this, I think the third of these meanings is the most important stage of the process to think through. Because it is the easiest to lose sight of in a world that can leave very little space for good spiritual health.

If you accept, even for the moment, the idea of writing as a spiritual practice, that calls in to question some common ideas about it as a profession. Because while it is entirely possible for your writing practice to grow in to a profession, the attempt to make it a profession can seriously damage it as a practice. The most unhappy and creatively unfulfilled people I know are those who traded in their writing practice for a professional career at a time or in a way that was not in balance with their needs as a practitioner. And its an easy trap to fall in to. If you take the time to get good at writing at all, you’ll quickly find that all kinds of people do in fact stop ignoring you. They’re often extremely kind and generous, sometimes thoughtless, and occasionally malicious. The agent who suggests you write a genre style that’s currently “commercial” but clearly not what you do. The editor who says your writing has to be in close third person because that’s what George R R Martin writes. The reviewer who savages your short story because, on some level, they wish they’d had the courage to write it. Or you can do it to yourself, by giving up on that promising but odd story with no real direction to write something more saleable instead. All of these things can, if balanced with your writing practice, be the right thing to do professionally. But they can also crunch your practice. And more often than not when they do that, they don’t work out professionally either, and you end up with neither.

The happiest and most creatively fulfilled writers I know are the ones who tend to put their writing practice ahead of any and all professional concerns unless they can be balanced. They also, in the counter-intuitive way of such things, tend to be the most successful in professional terms as well. Here is one of them.

Let me flip this around in to another perspective to try and convince any stragglers who are still determined to sell their writing out at the first opportunity. What calls you to writing is the same thing that calls you to reading. A kind of joy, one hopes. It’s the same thing that calls you to play games in the playground as a kid. Or tells you, out of the blue one day, that you need to get in to snowboarding / French cuisine / dog grooming [DELETE AS APPLICABLE] so you go to a class and BOOM meet the person who will become your husband / wife. Some people call that our soul, our higher self, God, intuition. Try not to get turned off if because those aren’t your words. They are just words, in the end. The question is, do you listen and act when when the calling comes? Or do you, instead, react with fear. Because if you’re called to write, but instead try to turn your writing prematurely in to a profession, that’s fear. Maybe it’s rational fear, because writing might mean living a different kind of life than the one your parents / friends our even you once wanted for you. But it’s fear nonetheless. And if you allow fear to dictate your responses in life you’re guaranteeing yourself a great deal of unhappiness.

My way of resisting that fear is always to return to the idea, that I learnt at art school, of my writing as a practice. I try not to ask professional questions – what will sell, who should I network with, what is my status. Instead I focus on the basic questions of a practice.  What do I need to learn next to get better? What do I need to make next to grow my practice? Who am I writing for? What do I want to tell them? And the counter-intuative reality is that whenever I focus on my practice, I make professional progress . But whenever I try to be professional, both the profession and the practice suffer.

Like many of my blog posts, I wrote this for myself firstly, but thought I would share it for others on the path.

The improvised word leaves space for you

Improvisation is a powerful part of art. Dancers, musicians and actors – those things we name the performing arts – all learn to improvise as part of their craft. Their work is temporal and transient. Once the move or note is performed it is gone forever.  A recording of Miles Davis playing Kind of Blue is only a representation. To experience the real thing you need to see the artist live.

The great Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami owned and ran a jazz bar before he began to write. Murakami’s books have an improvised feel, and it’s something he often touches on when interviewed. 1Q84 – Murakami’s recent three volume novel – has the structure of a thriller. There’s an assassination, a private detective, a stake out. But it’s a thriller written by Murakami (who happens to also make it a homage to Marcel Proust) so like no other thriller ever written.

Eleanor Catton is my favourite new writer for a long time. We need many more people in this world willing to say that creation is divine. In this interview for The Guardian she talks about the process of writing The Luminaries. It’s a mystery, that Catton made up scene by scene, by asking at each point what a reader might enjoy reading. That’s the heart of improvisation – being open to what comes in the moment.

Improvising doesn’t mean just making up anything. Neither is it an excuse for poor quality art. To improvise you need great expertise. You need to have internalised the structures of your art to such an extent that you can work them without conscious thought. That’s hard. It takes time and practice but also immense openness and trust. Because yes, you might fail.

When you plan, what is it you want? And which part of you wants it? Planning is an intellectual exercise. It pleases your mind to plan things out, because then your mind can be satisfied that everything is going to go as planned. Your mind doesn’t like uncertainty. It doesn’t like the possibility of failure. But without that possibility, there is no chance of success. You have to be wary of your minds motives. “I have to pay the rent this month” isn’t a thought that is going to help you create, however true it may be.

This isn’t an entry in the debate between outlining vs. not outlining a book. I don’t care, whichever is better for you. But be aware that both can be done either from grace or from fear. A fearful outline will try and fill in all the space that your imagination needs to improvise in. A graceful outline will focus much more on establishing narrative dynamics than plotting. Refusing to outline can be it’s own kind of fear, rejecting the mind’s technical knowledge, without which the imagination can create nothing tangible. “I don’t need to learn anything to be creative” is one of the first barriers hopeful creators will need to get over.

The beauty of improvisation in any creative act is that it allows us to experience the world as YOU see it. Write a thriller, that’s a great structure. But write YOUR thriller. Write a space opera or an epic fantasy, there are rich images and symbols in there to explore, but make them yours. That’s a scary thing to do. We might all see what an oddball you are! But for everything person who turns away, you’ll find many other who love you for being yourself.

Can you teach writing?

Is the wrong question. What we should ask is, can you learn writing?

To which the answer is an unequivocal YES! All writers teach themselves, through an intense and lifelong process of reading, writing, critiquing, editing, rewriting and rereading. This is how we learn.

In this process, a good teacher can save you immense time and effort. A good teacher can show you in an hour the four main point-of-view styles that the bulk of commercial fiction is written in. I have seen students stumble for years to find what they could learn in an hour.

So if the answer is self-evident, why do we continue to ask, can you teach writing? Is the question we are really asking; is writing teaching of value? Is it, in the logic of the capitalist market system, worth a buck?

Here is one certain answer. If you are asking that question, you are not ready to learn any creative discipline yet.

Workshop : Narrative

Reading Like a Writer
Image via Wikipedia

The second in a short series of posts accompanying workshops being taught for the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College. This post is on narrative, and why it is both a simple and deliciously complicated idea.

In Reading Like a Writer, novelist Francine Prose says that the true problem with narration is not who is speaking, but rather who is listening? And sometimes, especially for beginning writers, the problem is understanding that anyone is speaking at all.

We often use the word narrative interchangeably with both story and plot, and forget that while all three refer to some kind of sequence of events, each also has a quite separate specific meaning. A narrative is a told sequence of events. We call the teller a narrator, and the process of telling narration.

When writing a narrative we have to think about the point of view of the teller. Is the narrative being told in first or third person for instance. What is the voice of the narrator? How is it coloured by accent, attitude, emotion or other factors. How much does the teller know about the narrative? These can become thorny, circular arguments for writers, unless they are related back to the fundamental idea that a narrative has to be being told by a person. Sometimes the narrator is the central character, sometimes a subsidiary character or outside observer, sometimes by the author herself, or a combination of all of these.

For most of human history all stories were told. We passed them from one teller to the next, through an oral storytelling tradition stretching over thousands of years. Even once we began to record stories in writing, the written word was still written to be read aloud. With printing and mass literacy came the possibility for novels that were written to be read from the page. But without an actual human voice there to give the words shape, the writer has to work even harder to create the voice and viewpoint of the narrator. So it was really with cinema and TV that we began to lose the relationship between narrative and the voice of a narrator.

When you as a writer know who is telling the narrative, and also as Francine Prose suggests who they are telling it to, the entire writing process becomes both easier and filled with many more sophisticated opportunities. Take a simple children’s story like Jack and the Beanstalk. Imagine that Jack is telling the narrative as an old man, reflecting on his youthful adventure. Then imagine that he is telling it to the giant, somehow recovered from his fall from the beanstalk. Maybe the story is being told over a flagon of ale at an inn, two old men (or one old man and a very old monster!) reminiscing about better days. Or perhaps Jack is telling the story to his own wastrel son, an old man telling a young one what life is really about. With a scenario like this in mind, the richness and details of the story just come flooding out.

Once we understand as writers that there always has to be someone telling the narrative, and someone listening, we can work with that understanding in subtle ways. The narrator can be made invisible, the narrative transparent. As long as we as the writer understand how the narrative works, the workings can be hidden from the reader. The best narratives often work this way.

EXERCISE
Imagine a woman (or man) recounting a serious crime she has committed, such as a bank robbery or even a murder. In the space of one page, have the woman first recount the crime to another criminal she wants to impress. Then secondly, also in the space of a page, have her recount it to a judge who she wants a pardon from.

Workshop : Imagination

Term has begun at the Certificate in Creative Writing at Vaughan College, University of Leicester, of which I am very proud to be course director. We have 20 new keen creative writing students this year, of all ages and backgrounds. As part of this year’s course, I am going to open a general discussion following each workshop for both students on the course and anyone else interested. As well as a general introduction to the course, this weeks workshop was on the theme of Imagination.

Workshop One : Imagination

“I am enough of an artist to draw freely upon my imagination. Imagination is more important than knowledge. Knowledge is limited. Imagination encircles the world.” Albert Einstein

“It is above all by the imagination that we achieve perception and compassion and hope.” Ursula K. Le Guin

Where do stories and ideas come from? It’s the question every author get’s asked by readers, and as fantasy author Mark Charan Newton says, most of us don’t have a good answer. Harlan Ellison, the famously grumpy American author of speculative fiction, tells people he pays a regular fee to a little shop in the middle of nowhere, in return for which he get’s sent six new ideas each month. He get’s angry when people believe him, instead of realising the simple truth. We all have ideas, we all have stories to tell, we all have imagination. But finding our imagination and learning to use it isn’t as simple as just having an idea.

EXERCISE : Counting Breaths

Find somewhere quiet to sit, no TV or music! Sit comfortably, either in a chair or on the floor. Now. Close your eyes and breath. Try counting your breaths, in and out. How many can you count before a stray thought distracts you? You might be surprised how difficult this is! Every time you realise you have lost count, return to your breathing and start counting again.

It’s surprising how rarely we sit quietly in this day and age. We’re all busy people, work, family, social life and everything else make free time quite rare. And when we do have it we fill it with music, TV, video games and other things. It can be really interesting just to stop for a while and look at what is happening inside your own head. How many breaths could you count? What thoughts distracted you from counting? How long before you stopped, and why?

When we look at what’s happening inside our own heads for a while, we start to see what chaos it all is! Thoughts fly around like leaves in a storm. One moment you’re worrying about something at work, the next you’re wondering what’s happening in Eastenders. The inside of a even a relatively normal persons head is utter chaos. Writer’s heads are often even worse.

To cope in the world, we all have a part of our self that tames all that chaos. This is the part of us that makes ToDo lists, checks them off, fills out spreadsheets, makes it on time to appointments, understands how to read bus timetables, remembers passwords and generally makes civilised life possible. You can picture this part of your self as a smartly dressed, highly skilled office administrator, possibly called Ian or Clare.

But, we also all have a part of our self that loves the chaos. This is the part of us that dreams. It’s the part that loves how food tastes, or the feel of a summer breeze. It’s the part that makes friendships and falls in love. The part that cries at a piece of beautiful music, or gets angry when you see somebody being hurt. This is the part that makes civilised life worth living. Imagine this part of you as a free living, long haired hippie kid in tie-dye clothing called Sky or River.

Now. To write anything worth writing, Ian/Clare and Sky/River both have to collaborate. The problem being that, by nature, they don’t get along. Ian wants to make loads of rules and have every part of the story worked out before you even put pen to paper. Sky just writes random words down because she likes the sound and expects everyone else to share her joy.

Imagination is really the act of getting Ian and Sky working together effectively. Sky grabs hold of things in the chaos of your thoughts and recognises how beautiful they can be. Ian applies the rules of grammar and structure to them so that they are expressed as strongly as possible in words. When both our logical, ordered self, and our random, chaotic self can work together, that is when truly imaginative ideas emerge.

There are two things that can help merge order and chaos. The first is learning. In creative writing that means learning what Stephen King calls the Writer’s Toolbox, which we start looking at in the second of these workshops. The second is practice. The more you work with your tools, the better you get at using them. That bit is really down to you!

Some thoughts on teaching creative writing

I get to start this post with some good news which I have been sitting on for a while now. As of later this year I will be taking over as Course Director for the Certificate in Creative Writing at the Institute of Lifelong Learning, University of Leicester. I was extremely excited to be offered this role, partly because the course is aimed at adult learners (who are my favourite people to teach writing to) and partly because I’ve found a real love of teaching creative writing over the last three or more years of teaching the subject in various settings.

(You can find more details of the course here. I will be developing the curriculum and also doing a fair amount of teaching on it, alongside guest tutors. The course is very practically focused – a big tick for anyone wanting to develop real craft skills as a writer – and also allows you to gain a fully acredited qualification from a university with an excellent academic reputation. Needless to say, I highly recommend enrolling if these things suit your interests.)

Some writers go their entire careers without ever teaching, for others it is an integral part of their own development. I fit solidly in to the second camp. I am in many ways as interested in the process of writing as in the product. Understanding the dynamics of human imagination and the techniques of fiction are continually fascinating to me. What I have found most fascinating is how teaching writing pays back in to my own work as a writer. You never examine your own practice as hard as you do when you are trying to teach others (even if you only teach them what not to do…) and being in close contact with other writers is as enriching in a teaching role as it is in a workshop.

One of the perennial questions with creative writing is whether it can be taught. Clearly I believe that it can, and I have benefited from good teaching over more than a decade seriously studying the subject. The ‘writers toolkit’ can certainly be taught, from basics of grammar and style, to issues like viewpoint and narrative distance. I think it is also possible to help students develop their ability to harness their own creativity and imagination (and this is probably the most ‘transferable’ skill they can develop because it is useful in so many other areas of life). The area that can’t perhaps be taught is a writer’s insight in to the world, other people and their own self, which is ultimately what we look to writers for. But I do think that writing is in itself a way of developing those insights, and that is perhaps the most valuable thing any of us gain from studying it.