The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Category: The Art of Writing (page 1 of 8)

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.When interviewing the fabulous women’s advocate, writer and Australian TV journalist Tracey Spicer this week, we touched on how writing books can play with your head and your heart. How loneliness, a need for human contact creeps in because of writer’s solitude.

‘What do you do,’ asked Tracey, ‘when writing alone for hours?’ Yes, it can be lonely and we start to crave social interchange after hours of thinking and writing on our own.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.‘I know the triggers,’ I responded. ‘There’s a feeling I get, a low, down kind of sensation that usually means it’s time to get out and call some friends for lunch.’ Think about it. Know yourselves, listen to your emotions and become attuned to them. Snip out any dark seeds before they bud. Cut the empty feeling before it spirals. Call a friend for a walk, lunch, coffee. You cannot be creative if your inner creative world needs nurturing.

When your writing is not flowing, most of the time, you and your words simply need oxygen.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.And there are Quick Fixes. Grab your notebook, pen and keys and GO. LEAVE your computer. LEAVE your phone at home. Walk, write and think. Walking and writing definitely works.

Tracey’s new book is out on April 24 with HarperCollins. The Good Girl Stripped Bare promises to be an extraordinary read. Her advice on turning off all Apps to achieve maximum concentration and output is essential.

The only way you are going to produce good work is by being aware of your high and low emotions. Allow yourself, give yourself permission to leave your computer for nurturing time. See friends, refresh yourself, and go for a walk. Don’t let yourself or your inner world exhaust itself.

When you and your writing need oxygen. Chatting with Tracey Spicer.All that said, Tracey and I do tend to be very disciplined. We know we have to get the job done and the book finished. If you are the opposite and keep saying yes to all your friends’ invitations, then stop that right now. Are you often out wandering on walks? Then get back to your computer and start writing this instant!

And TURN OFF YOUR PHONE!

Why every writer should join a writers group.

There are no excuses anymore. By joining my little writers group in Florence I must write, must edit and must listen to my fellow writer’s thoughts and advice. Why didn’t I do this earlier?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.My writers group lets me know what is not clicking. So often we think our readers will understand, that they will ‘get’ what we’ve written. But my writers group lets me know that, actually, they didn’t pick up the thread because I wasn’t clear enough, or didn’t explain enough. Yes, it’s a little daunting, scary, being picked apart but it’s so good for your work! Your writing group sees where you can extrapolate. They let you know whether your story is engaging or not. My last question to my fellow writers this week was ‘do you want to know more?’ and that, as a writer, is what we are aiming for, no? Are you hooking your readers? Are they bored? Overwhelmed? Disinterested?

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.I must say, I had put off joining any kind of writers group for years. It’s my first time. Funny, huh, after four books and finally on my fifth that I now know I need fresh takes, readers, second opinions. Probably because this is my first Fiction book, while the others were all Creative Non-Fiction. I cannot recommend sharing with a writers group highly enough. Especially if you are embarking on a new form of writing, like I am.

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.Am I being narcissistic also adding that the thought of plagiarism within writers groups also scared me? I had heard of writers sharing their work, only to have ideas copied, concepts imitated and phrases plagiarized. But I flattered myself. Their work is fantastic! Who did I think I was? They’re amazing! My work is paltry compared to theirs.

Check your library or local arts group for any writers that meet up. Start a Google Docs Sharing session so you can all post your work, and pick the month to upload your work.

Go on, do yourself a favor and force yourself to diarize, write, share and enjoy writing with other people. Regularly!

Thinking of joining a Writers Group? Here's why you should.

How to make strong, memorable characters your readers won’t forget.

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.When writing Death in the Mountains, I made sure to give each member of my 1907 poor Tuscan family a characteristic or quality that made each person memorable.

  • Bruna liked to touch things. She was so in sync with the land and farming environment around her that she was tactile with the things she grew, made and created.
  • Artemio had bandy legs, a leftover from soft bones due to a lack of Vitamin D and rickets in his youth. He was swaddled and left inside for months without the sun. A common disorder of Tuscan babies in the past.
  • Fiamma was a fire brand, like her name which means flame.
  • Mario was violent and exuded anger like a perfume. Because of this characteristic he ultimately beat up the farm’s overseer. You can imagine the problems that caused!
  • Maria was beautiful.
  • Silvio hated wearing shoes.
  • Pasquale was only ever mentioned as ‘baby Pasquale.’

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.And onwards for each character within the pages of Death in the Mountains.

Giving each character at least one mannerism is a process that many writers follow. It helps writers dig more deeply into a character, enlarge upon or extrapolate the person or the location. It also helps readers remember your characters, no matter how big or small their part in your story.

What mannerisms or habits have your protagonist’s history given him/her? What kind of impact does that have on your story or scene?

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.The Italians are fascinated by beautiful women, more so than other nationalities that I have encountered. They LOVE a beautiful woman; they venerate ‘bella.’ Making Maria absolutely drop dead gorgeous helped me examine the Italians attitude to beauty. It helped me form Maria’s character; it even helped me create the narrative and plot line for the book. Who could fall in love with her? What impact would that have on the family? How did Maria feel about being so beautiful? Did she see the impact that she had on people? How did it feel for her father, Artemio, to go into town or church with a daughter that everybody stared at and talked about? How would Mario, Maria’s aggressive, troubled brother feel about her beauty? Was he protective of her?

Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.In the end, giving Maria that physical characteristic of beauty helped me write a much better book. Her beauty gave me ideas, outcomes, reactions, actions, scenes.

In my next Blog I’ll look at the difference between superficial and deep characterization.

Follow me on Facebook and Instagram too for my new #WriteTipWednesday! Every Wednesday I’ll give a writer’s tip and then examine the issue more deeply with my Friday Blog.

If you’re interested in reading more about the rural life of Tuscany’s past, check this post out on Nonna.
Make strong, memorable characters your readers won't forget.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.Don’t start your book with back story! When reading manuscripts, story lines, plot ideas and structure concepts for my Tuscany writers retreats, starting with back story is one of the biggest problems I see. Start your story with the action, problem, conflict or whatever it is that must be overcome. Begin with the ‘what’s at stake’. Weave the back story in later, with character.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.So many great stories end up getting thrown out of the agent’s or publisher’s slush pile because they simply don’t grab the reader’s attention enough right from the start.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.It’s tempting to build the first chapter up slowly, using beautiful words and prose, and I blogged on the error of letting beautiful prose get in the way of clear and immediate storytelling here.  It won’t snare you a deal.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.During The Art of Writing, every night we interview global agents and publishers. Every year our discussions confirm time and again – beyond doubt – that agents and publishers want and will not accept anything less than gripping text. From the first sentence!

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.In 2017, strong story lines that hook readers from the first chapter are more essential than ever. Please remember, don’t start with back story. Go for deeper characters, more compelling dialogue and thrilling plot lines.

If you want to know more about what else your writing needs, have a look at our Programmes for The Art of Wiring in June and September. We have a killer program coming up this year!

And check out this past Blog too on five common manuscript errors.

Begin your novel with action and save the back story for later.

This Valentine’s Day, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.I love Valentine’s Day. I love the flowers, the sentiment and the message behind a day dedicated to love. Romantic love. However this February 14 I would suggest that you turn that love back onto yourself. It’s been such a crazy year, with international news making many of us depressed, emotional and anxious. It’s a weird time in the world. So why not, in 2017, on the day of romantic love, nurture the artist within and give yourself a present?

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.As one of my favourite creative teachers, Julia Cameron, says: ‘Do something for yourself that you normally wouldn’t do. In order to have a real relationship with our creativity we must take the time and care to cultivate it.’

So nurture the artist within! Your special treat can be something as simple as an hour in a café, with a pen and paper, making a list of all the things you’d like to do this year. Maybe make a list of all the things you’d like to do or achieve in your lifetime. Knowing that if you are a part of this Blog, you are a creative, here are some creative gift ideas to give to yourself on Valentine’s Day this year:

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy yourself a lovely new notebook, one that you always thought was too expensive for yourself.

Buy yourself some sweet little pot plants for your windowsill or garden.

Get those pots of rosemary, sage and basil – even if it’s just because they smell nice!

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Buy some inexpensive water colours or sepia water colour pens and take the time to draw or paint some pages in your notebook, while you listen to your favourite music.

Get that special bottle of wine, special coffee or special tea – your favourite, not your child, mother or spouse’s favourite!

Buy a ticket to your favourite band, show, production or play.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.Make or buy your favourite sauce, relish or jam.

Go for a walk to your favourite museum or art gallery, or browse your favourite shop.

Make a date with yourself to go to some different flea markets or foreign food shop.

Buy a new novel.

This Valentine’s Day stay cultured, stay calm and stay happy on the inside. Above all, remember YOU don’t need a Valentine. You have YOU! And you are special.

This Valentine's, turn the love back onto yourself: nurture the artist within.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAm reading such a good book on writing at the moment, one that has inspired this Blog. Albert Zuckerman is the New York Literary Agent responsible for doctoring some two dozen blockbuster novels. It is with great reverence that I read his thoughts on how to produce a perfectly polished final manuscript, every morning.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanSince finishing Julia Child’s The Artists’ Way (which lasted me about eight months) I had been writing my morning pages solely in journal form, like a diary. I wrote every morning, just to write, without reading a book with creative writing exercises, artistic guidance, direction or help. In other words, I wrote just to write, to kick-start the day’s work in front of the computer.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanHowever, my Morning Pages of journaling lasted about a month before I became mind-numbingly bored with my own jaded, tired, same old, same old diary keeping. Actually my Morning Pages just became a list of things that were pissing me off (my husband featured as protagonist a lot – sorry Paolo). Then along came Writing the Blockbuster Novel by Albert Zuckerman. I will never journal again. I will always, from now on, do my Morning Pages with someone like Albert.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanNot only do I learn and grow, rather than navel gaze, but Albert is also helping me realise that I am on the right track with my goals and dreams in setting my new novel in a contemporary Florence. Albert says ‘Readers enjoy being introduced to exotic environments where, almost as tourists or students, they can observe and learn about customs, mores, rituals, modes of dress and etiquette, social and business practises largely or wholly alien to those with which they are familiar.’ Because on the whole, readers like to learn. Of course this is not the case with all blockbusters and all novels but some of the best known examples of environmentally dominated bestsellers are Airport, Hotel, Overload, Wheels, The Moneychangers, Alaska, Chesapeake, Poland, Hawaii, Texas, Tai-Pan, Nobel House and Shogun. Then there are the techno blockbusters set on planes or submarines etc.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert ZuckermanAll of which inspires me to write to you and tell you that you can set your book in your own backyard as well, but only if you invent a backyard with unique, culturally spot-on characters and plot that has distinctly different dialogue/dialect and details. But if you are choosing a setting right now for your plot, chose a setting that’s different. That unique setting will help sell your book.

It all makes Florence seem like a good setting for a contemporary thriller. Right, I must get back to my writing now because Albert has inspired me to keep going…and also to learn and grow in the morning over breakfast rather than ruminate on my own dull thoughts.

Writing the Blockbuster Novel; learning from New York Literary Agent Albert Zuckerman

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of informationMy trusty Art of Writing assistant, Gabriella Ienzi, has almost finished her manuscript. Ginormous congratulations to Gabriella! Writing a book is a huge task. However, Gabriella has realised that though the internet has a huge quantity of ‘help’ in regards to sharpening her text and getting her book ‘just right,’ mining for tips can take up too much of her time. Here are Gabriella’s top five writing lessons learned on what to avoid and what to do with cyberspace publishing assistance. 


5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information

1. Never lose the forest for the trees.

Specifically, don’t forget your book when stressing about your query. You’ll read QUERY so many times that your mind will start to glaze over it, like “a” or “the.” Yes, the query is important. It’s especially important if the agency asks for a query-only submission, with no writing to boost you. Your query (and pitch) speaks about your ability to articulate your story briefly and succinctly, cutting straight to the heart without any arterial ruptures along the way. But don’t forget your manuscript. Ultimately, not every agent will be right for your manuscript, just like not every genre appeals to every reader. Don’t get so caught up trying to snag an agent’s attention that you oversell your book, or sell it as something it’s not. This is why it’s so important to get someone to look at not just your query, but a sample chapter too.

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information2. Take everything with a grain of salt, unless it’s advice about your work specifically. 

I’ll use myself as an example. My book is a multi-point of view story where the protagonist’s POV appears in chapter four. Now. I was told to handle my query both ways: include all three women or write it from the protagonist’s POV, whichever sounds more intriguing in the query. Except I just got my query critiqued, and the verdict? If the query focuses on the protagonist, and the opening chapter isn’t the protagonist, it’s confusing. Period. Full stop. The takeaway: always, always, always—no matter how much you read and think you know!—get someone to look at your work directly. Don’t rely solely on online tips, because writing is not math and there is no perfect formula that applies to every author and every book. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information3. Partner up. 

Get a separate pair of eyes—a beta reader—to read your work, at whatever stage you’re comfortable sharing it. Some writers (me) would rather set the whole book on fire before letting anyone see the first raw draft. Others peck away at a rough draft so the result is a finished story that can be shown to at least close friends. If you have the time, buddy up with a critique partner, where you each read and critique each other’s work. 

4. Invest. 

Your book is your business. You won’t launch a successful business of any kind if you’re not willing to put any money into it. If you don’t have writerly friends who can critique your book, then pay for a beta reader—there are many who offer detailed reader reports on what worked and didn’t work in the story. Some book bloggers charge as low as a couple hundred. Take courses, attend a retreat, register for online conferences (which cost a lot less than most physical ones), pay for a critique or two. 

5 writing lessons learned down the rabbit hole of information5. Never be afraid to ask questions—but always try and ask them in person about your work personally. 

Getting my query critiqued was an eye-opener as to why agents often don’t offer criticism for rejected manuscripts. The critique just left me with more questions. If I fix X, will Y be okay? Or if I just fix Z, can I leave X and Y as is? It’s a slippery slope and hard to get out of. And I started imagining if the critique had actually come with a rejection. It’s hard to navigate the fine balance of “this is what went wrong” and “but even if you fix it, I still won’t be interested.” A weak point in your manuscript isn’t like a loose draft in the kitchen window and you just have to shut the window tighter; it’s a draft that could be coming from anywhere in the house, and you have to find it first. A solution could fix all, or make it worse, or leave it the same. That’s why speaking personally with an agent or author can be so invaluable—you get to bounce an idea back and forth.

New Year’s Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.With Christmas and New Year over I see all the Writing Blogs, writing sites, podcasts and publisher’s social media platforms going crazy about New Year’s writing resolutions. I wish I could join in! After all these years writing you’d think I’d be first in line with encouraging tips and tricks as to how to make 2017 the year of quality text or how to have more productive time etc, etc, etc. Others are screaming; Resolve to Write More! Start Editing Now! Land that deal in 2017! But I’m not. 

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.I seem to be imploring the universe for time to write, then when I do carve out some time I sit in front of the computer distracted by emails, admin, The Art of Writing, social media and a whole lot of other stuff that doesn’t help me increase the word count on my book.

Surely, I can’t be alone in this vortex of grasping at air, trying to shop for food, cook food, clean up Christmas decorations, send invoices, chase invoices, tend to urgent tax, hunt down errant bills and the other boring mundanities of life?

IsNew Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write. anyone else being sucked into such a humdrum everyday routine that their creative impulse is left trampled like a mat at their front door?

I was writing. The book was flowing and really happening, moving forward. Then came Christmas and New Year and now I can’t seem to get into the swing of it.

One thing is for sure. I am not giving up. Next week will be better.

New Year's Resolutions; Finding, and making, time to write.

Head of UK HarperCollins Women’s Fiction to join us from September 10-16!

Martha Ashby, the Director of UK HarperCollins Women’s Fiction will join The Art of Writing for one week from September 10-16! Martha will be with us all week but will meet with us formally on Friday, September 15 over a glass of wine to discuss anything you want! What holes does she see in first time manuscripts? What’s hot and what’s not? How can I get my work published?

This is your chance to ask a major publisher anything you’ve always wanted to know about publishing but never had the chance to ask. 

This is sensational news. So if you have…

* an idea

* a plot

* a half written manuscript – maybe your writing has stalled and your confidence has crashed.

* a dream – maybe your dream is to write part or full time. Would you like to know more about the reality of a ‘writing lifestyle?’

* had a series of agent rejections

* a trilogy idea or if you are inventing a genre idea (like me)

* doubts about whether what you’ve written could possibly sell to a reputable publishing house.

Then Martha Ashby’s one week with us from September 10-16, 2017, is an incredible opportunity to chat, one on one, with the Director of major, traditional publishing house HarperCollins.

If you have any inclination to join us, or any questions, just let me know. This is an amazing chance to show your work to the people who might actually buy it, so don’t be shy – let me know asap.

All my very best wishes for a fantastically creative 2017!

Creative Companionship

In the second part of my interview with writer and creative writing teacher, Martyn Bedford, we look at a couple of his favourite exercises that encourage us to work in different ways with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. Martyn will take our September 10-16, 2017 week in Tuscany, teaching every morning. Don’t forget, these thoughts, this encouragement on writing, is for beginners and emerging writers. Though, as an established writer I adore hearing this stuff. It’s all about creative companionship.

02bfb16f9d375bbd9dd9e5c2d7b63b91You’ve taught writers for many years. What is the one common mistake you see your students make?

I’m not sure I’d call it a mistake, as such, but developing writers can become so tied up in getting the plot right, grappling with their prose style, organising the narrative, exploring their themes, that they lose sight of their character(s).

For me, character is at the heart of all good fiction – what are stories about, essentially, if not the human condition, and how people relate to themselves and to those around them? Those other very important aspects of fiction-writing (plot, ideas, structure, stylistic issues such as tone and register, etc.) emerge from, and in relation to, character. As readers, if we aren’t interested in the characters, we won’t care what they do or what happens to them. As writers, if we don’t ‘inhabit’ our characters we won’t create authentic voices for them or properly understand or convey their motivations, actions and interactions.

But, commonly, I find when reading my students’ work that a page or two will go by, sometimes entire scenes, in which the character’s perspective has dropped out of the narrative. So, when I’m providing feedback in a workshop or annotating a typescript, I often find myself commenting: What is your character thinking? Why is she/he thinking it? What are her/his emotions and mood? How is all of this affecting what she/he says or does?

Creative CompanionshipIn an age where so much information is readily available online (blogs, virtual courses, podcasts, etc) what are some benefits to personal instruction, based on your years as a lecturer?

I know I’m biased, but you can’t beat face-to-face contact when it comes to creative-writing tuition – or any form of teaching for that matter. Those kinds of remote support have their place and can be very helpful to developing writers, of course, but there’s something special about the dynamic of a group writing workshop led by an experienced tutor and the personal connection of one-to-one mentoring. And I speak not just as someone who’s been teaching creative writing for 17 years but as a graduate of an MA programme and former writing student on evening classes and residential courses.

Human beings are social animals, after all, and even the best virtual interaction is a pale imitation of the real thing. The back-and-forth of conversation, the sharing and testing of ideas, the discussion of constructive critical feedback, the posing and answering of questions, the supportive environment of kindred spirits . . . all of this can be replicated online but anyone who’s taken part in real-life creative writing sessions will agree (I hope!) that tutors and students alike benefit from being in a room together. It’s the difference between chatting to a bunch of friends on Facebook and having them round for dinner.

Creative CompanionshipWhat is your favorite creative writing exercise that you like to teach your students? What is your favorite lesson on writing that you like to teach?

There’s a fairly simple exercise which I used when I began teaching creative writing that I’d nicked – er, I mean borrowed and adapted – from a tutor on a residential writing course I’d attended as a student. I still use it today as it’s a good way of encouraging writers to work with characterization, scene construction and variation in voice and perspective. And, while the set-up is quite basic, the exercise gives any student – whether beginner, intermediate or advanced – something to get their teeth into. Here it is:

A bicycle and a car are involved in a collision. Write the scene three times from three different viewpoints: the young male cyclist, the elderly female car driver, a passer-by.

And here’s a variation of it which allows more scope for dialogue:

A couple are having a fierce argument, witnessed/overheard by their young son or daughter. Write the scene three times, once from each character’s viewpoint.

fdc15712025008f1a8e97017089d0ebcAs for a favourite lesson, there’s a class I run with my BA English & Creative Writing undergraduates at Leeds Trinity University which I always enjoy. It’s the final session on autobiography, on the Life Writing module, in which the topic is ‘lying’. We start by reading and discussing an article about the psychology of deception and the role that lying plays in human interaction. I then ask the students where, and in what circumstances, they would draw the line between ‘acceptable’ and ‘unacceptable’ deceit. We then play a version of one of the rounds of the British TV panel-show Would I Lie to You?, in which three (pre-briefed) students take turns to tell the class an unusual fact about themselves – two are true, one is false. The rest of the group has to ask the three students questions to try to establish which one is lying.

The exercise that follows is for each student to write an autobiographical piece about a particular lie they have told, or been told.

What I like about this session is the mix of seriousness and fun. And because it’s a topic everyone has experience of and can relate to, it invariably provokes strong opinions and plenty of lively discussion – and, often, some good, thoughtful, self-reflective writing.

Creative Companionship

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