The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Tag: Creative Writing course Tuscany (page 1 of 5)

What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?Following up this week’s #WriteTipWednesday – What’s the worst thing that can happen? This train of thought can push your plot line through the roof. It’s something a writer friend taught me and it’s always kept me in good stead.

What’s the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist? What are her/his worst fears? Can another character do, say or react in a way that pushes plot or character development further? Can the drama or suspense be twisted, advanced or established by imagining a nastier turn of events? Thinking like this, throughout your planning and plotting, can change a book from a good read to a great read.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?As your protagonist always needs something to overcome, needs to have an arc of change, thinking about ways to make that arc more arresting is essential.

When half way through Death in the Mountains, I hit a brick wall (my publisher said this often happens). Then it came to me. Mario had to chop beautiful Maria’s finger off! The story is true. In real life Nonna Angiolina’s finger was cut off when she stepped between her warring husband and brother. My book/story needed something shocking, halfway through to make it kick harder. Yes, this was one of the worst things that could happen. I could use that swinging scythe in Death in the Mountains, with seemingly just a small mention but with big impact:

A shadow seemed to fall over Maria. She worried her fingers inside the tucks of her dress and felt the warmth of the friction from her thumb as it massaged where her index finger had once been. The stump was smooth and shiny. Her mother had stretched the skin across the bloody exposed joint when she had run home from the wheat fields, Fiamma and Anna close behind, gagging with shock. Her sisters had seen her question Mario over his swigs from a hidden wine flask. They’d seen his hand come up as if to hit her, his face puce with rage. They’d watched as she’d thought to protect herself from his blow, only to see his other hand come up and his scythe slice through the air. ‘The sickle …’ she had sobbed as her mother dressed her wound, hushed her tight to her breast and rocked her back and forth. It had not been her intention to be dishonest with her mother then; the lie came to her lips when Mario’s silhouette loomed in the doorway. She’d recognised the threat in the hunch of his shoulders. It was as if his head were set too tightly into them, like a cork screwed into the neck of a too tight bottle that threatened to explode. She thought then that he was capable of killing her, should she tell their parents how she had lost her finger.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?So yes, ask yourself this phrase: What’s the worst thing that can happen? Or as you are wrapping up your storyline, what’s the best thing that can happen?

And by the way, Florence St Marks Cultural Foundation is holding a fabulous Publishing Day event on May 13. Agents and publishers will be present for a morning of questions and discussion along with an afternoon of private appointments to listen to your book pitch. Be sure to check it out here.

Also, to find out more, as it’s a really great opportunity for those with an idea or a fully formed manuscript to pitch, visit this great interview with Literary Manager and producer Marilyn Atlas here.

What's the worst thing that can happen to your protagonist?

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it’s finished.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.Yet another rewrite. My fifth and I’m told to expect more.

So I am working on a new book, as you know. It’s a novel – my first actually as my last four books were either creative non-fiction or non-fiction. The pages before me are fourth draft. The first draft was in third person and that didn’t feel right. The second draft became first person. I rewrote the third draft because the story needed big character changes and improvements. The text then needed a fourth draft to make it fit into a tight ‘thriller’ genre with a big suspense emphasis. This need to restructure the fourth time became screamingly obvious after a reread as I wanted to follow the rule ‘the story should turn about every four to six pages.’ Nowadays, if you want to sell, and sell well, you basically have to follow that rule.  

Now, after having shown it to a good friend who is also a top New York literary agent, the advice is that my new book needs, yet again, another draft. This will be my 5th draft and now the book will be in third person (again).

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.

Whining about rewrites will do no good. We write, that’s what we do. Again and again and again, changing, recrafting, improving, omitting, and adding. Part of being a writer is knowing that rewriting is compulsory. If you don’t want to rewrite – then get out of the game now. If you think what you’ve written is perfect and doesn’t need rewriting, you’ll never be published.

A dear friend of mine, on a three book deal with Little Brown, is on her TENTH rewrite. I have nothing to complain about.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.The more you rewrite, the faster you become at writing. I am a slow writer (no surprises there, you’ve only been waiting for this new book for about three years, or more) and I need to be faster. The only way I am going to write faster is by writing more. I need to rewrite, write faster and ultimately write better, without fear of the text being crappy. I can edit the bad bits out later. Right now I have to rewrite, then write more and faster.

Everyone has to rewrite, there is no way around it.

I totally do NOT buy into this (a tip I found on the internet) attitude:

Eventually, redrafting will just spoil the novel – there is a danger that the story you set out to write ends up so ‘surgically’ enhanced that it no longer resembles the original story – the intrinsic core of the story has been lost.

Rewrite after rewrite; edit your book until it's finished.I do not agree with this advice because fundamentally I am a journalist, accustomed to being questioned, subjected to Fact Finders, sub-editors and finicky editors who know what story they want and how it should be crafted. I bow to their expertise. I trust those with more experience than me. I humbly accept advice though do not automatically take it. If I see what they mean, I accept their advice.

But I know, after being in this game for my entire life, that I must rewrite. Again.

I agree with Michael Crichton, ‘good books are not written. Good books are rewritten.’

Do you love writing? Would you like to join The Art of Writing team in Tuscany? Let’s dream, plot, write, learn and grow as writers for a week together.  Email me at lisacliffordwriter@gmail.com so that I can tell you more about our annual creative writing retreats.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.

I am enormously fortunate to live a life rich with pickings for my writing. Scene ideas for my novel are never far away because for an Australian girl, everything I live here in Tuscany is unusual and interesting.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.Last weekend I went up to cousin Vanni’s farm in Casentino, the mountains of Eastern Tuscany. We made sausages, pancetta, capocollo, capaccia, salami, ribs, pork fillet, prosciutto and cotecchino. We spent the day making these ‘salumi’ using every part of half a pig. The process we used has not changed for millennia, apart from the meat grinder – a mincer that in the old days was cranked by hand.

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.So here’s the tip: in every story something happens. Writers are always looking out for how and where a certain plot event can happen or evolve. I plan to use our ‘salumi’ making scene as an occasion where action takes place. While making our sausages, I took notes, but not your typical notes. My records center on the senses. What we smelt, heard, tasted and the scene’s atmosphere. These are the nuances we forget when we finally have time to sit down and write the scene we witnessed, sometimes even years beforehand.

Here are some of my notes as an example:

  • Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.The smell of wine, vinegar, spices, cinnamon, raw garlic.
  • Cognac like tea drizzled
  • Red wine bubbles with garlic in an ancient pot on the austere stove-top
  • Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.Silence punctuated by steel tubs being rinsed
  • The men hum
  • Bay leaves crackle
  • Fennel sticks and fennel seeds
  • Air is pungent, thick with these smells
  • The men work quietly, humming or breathing heavily through their noses as they work with their tube of sausage, twisting and knotting it into four finger lengths.
  • The women chatter in the kitchen as they pull pasta, mash potatoes with conserve and cinnamon.

This is just a simple example of what you can draw from, later, when you’re ready to write your scene. Can you do this too? Do you do this? Write the smells and sounds to keep ready for when you’re ready to structure your action scene?

Using my own Tuscan life in my new novel.

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.

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!

Marriages Are Made in Bond Street; Penrose Halson and her fascinating book about a 1940s Marriage Bureau.

Marriages Are Made in Bond StreetPenrose Halson is the author of Marriages Are Made in Bond Street and this year, Penrose and her husband Bill joined us for a week in Tuscany for The Art of Writing. I was intrigued by Penrose’s story, the fascinating purchase of a Marriage Bureau and the subsequent stories and ultimately a book that she wrote from its archives. The stories in her book Marriages Are Made in Bond Street reveal the lives, expectations, yearnings and loves of the men returning home from the Second World War and the women who remained at home, searching for a partner in life that in those years were difficult to find.

It’s a beautiful book and its rise and rise in popularity has Penrose busy with Writers and Literary Festivals all over the UK. Not only has Penrose found herself to be a successful writer within the world of publishing long after retirement, but she’s also found herself the owner of a series of stories that are very likely to become a major TV series.

Here is a peek at the Marriages Are Made in Bond Street precis:

Marriages Are Made in Bond StreetIn the spring of 1939, with the Second World War looming, two determined twenty-four-year-olds, Heather Jenner and Mary Oliver, decided to open a marriage bureau. They found a tiny office on London’s Bond Street and set about the delicate business of match-making. Drawing on the bureau’s extensive archives, Penrose Halson – who many years later found herself the proprietor of the bureau – tells their story, and those of their clients. We meet a remarkable cross-section of British society in the 1940s: gents with a ‘merry twinkle’, potential fifth-columnists, nervous spinsters, isolated farmers seeking ‘a nice quiet affekshunate girl’ and girls looking ‘exactly’ like Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, all desperately longing to find ‘The One’. And thanks to Heather and Mary, they almost always did just that. A riveting glimpse of life and love during and after the war, Marriages Are Made in Bond Street is a heart-warming, touching and thoroughly absorbing account of a world gone by.

Marriages Are Made in Bond Street

Gorgeous, just gorgeous. I love everything about this book and the story behind the author so I couldn’t help but ask Penrose to be a part of my Blog on writing. Here’s how Penrose’s life changed:

In 1986 Bill and I bought the Katharine Allen Marriage & Advice Bureau, established in 1960 by Betty Allen-Andrews, a formidable Irish-American woman who conducted her business by personal interview and letter. She wrote long, detailed, graphic letters, which I read with amazement as I tried to understand how the Marriage & Advice Bureau worked. Betty’s letters were full of stories.

In 1992 the daughter of Heather Jenner, who was then running the Marriage Bureau founded by her mother in 1939, faced with a 700% rent increase, was forced to close the bureau. She asked me to take over her clients, which I did. Later she gave me the bureau’s archives.

In 2014 the speaker at a meeting of the Freelance Media Group, run by a dear friend, novelist Jane Corry, was television development producer Tara Cook. She asked if anyone had ideas for television; I said I had a lot of marriage bureau stuff. Intrigued, Tara came to see the archive – ledgers, press cuttings books, photographs, documents, letters, which smelled mustily of the old barn where they had been stored for years. She read some of the Marriage & Advice Bureau stories that I’d written up fourteen years earlier; and eventually, to my bemusement, Carnival bought an option.

At the same time I dusted off those stories, which had been sitting in a drawer for 14 years while I was otherwise busy (mother with dementia; becoming Master of a City Livery Company) and sent them to an old friend, Katie James. Katie had always been interested since she was the step grand-daughter of Heather Jenner who founded the business. She also happened to work at Pan Macmillan; and unbeknown to me, she showed the stories to the Non-fiction Publishing Director, who called me in and said that she wanted to publish the book.

Marriages Are Made in Bond Street

Having imagined that I would have to try to persuade her to consider a book, and that I would probably fail, I was fairly taken aback, but got on with it, beavering away for about a year. It was totally absorbing and I was gripped. Originally I had imagined a book covering the entire life of the two marriage bureaux, 1939 – 2000. However, there was so much fascinating material that Marriages Are made in Bond Street covers only 1939-49.

There is enough to fill more books, so if Marriages is successful enough to warrant sequels (which may of course depend on whether a television series materialises) I could still be writing when I’m pushing 90! I have always loved writing, and did a great deal early in my so-called career (innumerable educational language magazines, readers, courses for children learning languages, and children’s books, as Penrose Colyer). But a grown-up book such as Marriages is a far more complex and engrossing activity than Parlez Français avec Dougal

Such a lovely story. And I hope it inspires you all to keep writing and to keep believing in your ideas. You never know what can happen!

I also couldn’t resist this week adding some lovely comments I received today from an alumni member of The Art of Writing, Rose. “It’s incredible how the strength of connection that we all gained two years ago in those Casentino mountains still holds firm and true. Well done on creating something so special – it remains one of the most significant weeks of my life.” Rose’s comments, along with Penrose’s magical story inspire me to keep going!

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When friends create their own writers retreat.

When friends create their own writers retreat.Gathering creative spirits, escaping to a beautiful, isolated village in Scotland to share writing, discuss plot and workshop ideas – that’s what I did last week with four writer friends. We created our own writers retreat. Our own circle of like-minded, kindred creative spirits and bowed out of society for 6 days to concentrate on our pages.

And I cannot recommend it highly enough.

When friends create their own writers retreat.There are times when you need to surround yourself with other writers. Why wait for an official retreat, organised by someone else? Rent a lovely home as soon as finances allow and share the expense with friends so that you can think and dream and try. Target an area in the country that you’d like to hike through too. Because nothing is better after a morning of writing than a few hours walk.

When friends create their own writers retreat.The best aspect of organising our own writers retreat was the aperitivo hour. Every night each one of us would read our work and we would discuss together the manuscript’s problems or what we called ‘its dilemmas.’ The sacred time of sharing our work each night gave me several epiphanies. My new book sharpened, as my friends pointed out flaws or suggested improvements. Its focus, flow and ‘what’s at stake’ has improved enormously thanks to them.

We shared the cooking too! Each night a different cook. Oh, the joys of being cooked for!

Don’t wait for the Art of Writing – organise your own, private, personal retreat with writer friends. Your writing will benefit and so will your soul.

When friends create their own writers retreat.

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