The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Tag: Creative Writing Workshop Tuscany (page 1 of 3)

Why I need to talk my stories through.

Why I need to talk my stories through.Fascinating how some writers need to talk their stories through, while others need to keep their stories quiet. Every writer is different. One creative process may work for you but be completely wrong for me.

Talking recently with Martyn Bedford, author of eight books for Bantam, Penguin and Bloomsbury publishers, I found we had entirely different approaches to getting our stories down.

Why I need to talk my stories through.I like to talk my story through. Tell it to a friend. This approach has always worked incredibly well for me with friends often adding some fabulous twist or idea to the story. But more than anything, explaining the plotline helps me sort the story out, find the parts that don’t work. I’ll even go to writer friends with a character or plot problem and ask for their help.

Why I need to talk my stories through.For me, talking a story through helps me find the right words. Helps organize structure. Which is the most exciting angle to start with? Is this the most engaging idea? I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been running through a storyline when I’ve been hit by the perfect phrase, a better approach, a lightbulb change of direction moment.

But for Martyn talking the story through doesn’t work. He is forty thousand words into the first draft of his new novel for teenagers and young adults, The House that Jacaranda Built. He dislikes talking about his novels-in-Why I need to talk my stories through.progress before at least one draft is completed. For Martyn his idea can go stale after being “explained” too many times before it’s written. Martyn will however give a sort of precis.

“I’ll just say that it’s the tale of a family that offers refuge to a homeless teenager who they find asleep in the doorway of their café, and the consequences arising from their decision.” That’s it. That’s all Martyn will say.

Different writing processes are intriguing. I love looking at how different methods work for different people.

One thing is for sure. There is always the risk that if you talk too much about your book you’ll never end up writing it. Make sure any talk is matched with words on the page!

Why I need to talk my stories through.

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.

Let food carry your story forward.

Let food carry your story forward.When food is beautiful, drab, compelling or repulsive we can and should include it in our stories.

Food can carry a story forward. Not only the actual food, but the process of eating it, dining around it and/or sharing a meal. Food used in a social sense can reveal much about people’s relationships with each other. When you include a meal in your story, the possibilities are endless.

Enjoying or rejecting food and the company sharing it can be the focus point a scene needs. Writers needs scenes in which to reveal… and scoffing, or quaffing, can give us just the ambience and atmosphere we need.

Let food carry your story forward.Think about how often you’ve seen meal times in movies used to show how a family or friends relate. Or how often you’ve read a book where the pivotal scene was over the dinner table.

Here, Ruth Reichl in her book Tender at the Bone, talks about going for her first coffee in Italy. It’s not a food scene, but one written so evocatively that it made me think about how often coffee is now used as a scene setter for the story telling.

The scent of beans was so powerful we could smell it from two blocks away, the aroma growing stronger as we got closer to the cafe. It was a rich and appealing scent, and it pulled us onward and through the door. Inside, burlap sacks of coffee beans were stacked everywhere and the smell of coffee was so intense it made me giddy. Thin men lounged against a long bar, drinking tiny cups of espresso. The coffee was smooth and satisfying, a single gulp of pure caffeine that lingered on the palate and reverberated behind the eyes. I felt lightheaded.

What a great way to set up a pivotal scene – through coffee!

Let food carry your story forward.

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.

So what’s your protagonist’s transformation?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?Tricky business, sometimes, understanding how your character must change or grow. How almost all stories happen at a crossroads in your character’s life, how a story pivots around a fork in their road. Sometimes the story happens at their crisis point, their threshold moment.

It’s a story essential. Your character must evolve. He/she must go from ‘something’ to ‘something.’

So what's your protagonist's transformation?Weakling to warrior?

Bad to good?

Good to bad?

Happy to sad?

Faith to faithless?

Arrogance to humility?

Dependent to independent?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?These are just ideas, some simple changes to illustrate what I mean, but it’s good to keep it simple. If you think about every movie you’ve ever seen, the main character undergoes some kind of transformation. How is the main character in your book changing? From what to what? It’s super important that you know that clearly now. Don’t leave it till later, work it out now then show the changes through action. Don’t tell the changes, show them.

So what's your protagonist's transformation?In my new book Lana is weak, indecisive. She lets her Italian husband Santo make all the decisions because she doesn’t feel that she is knowledgeable enough about the ways of Italy to make the decisions. But this hesitant behavior of Lana’s changes because of the pivotal moment, the crisis event in her life. Lana goes from insecure to secure, basically from weakness to strength. However she loses something along the way – her ability to trust people. Lana, while gaining self-worth, loses her innocence and naivety. She will never believe in people in quite the same way again. It sounds corny, cheesy really, and rather ‘already done’. But remember, this is your story, your character, your imagination, your voice. So it will be different.

How does your character transform? Can you put it in three words?

So what's your protagonist's transformation?

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.

The scribbles of a mad woman.

Notes; the scribbles of a mad woman.I have notes everywhere. Handwritten notes on scraps of torn paper in the kitchen. Sentence ideas on note pads beside my bed. I have plot ideas on decrepit notebooks in my handbag. Characterization thoughts in A4 piles in the living room. Let’s not even go to the note mess in my office. Pieces of paper with line upon line of words. It’s quite depressing really.

Do the notes make sense? Most of them (to be fair). Will I ever use those notes in the book I am writing now? I don’t know. The notes, reminders, prompts and thoughts are becoming so out of hand that I will need a week dedicated to sorting them. They need to be transcribed.

Notes; the scribbles of a mad woman.The trouble is a week sorting the notes means a week without moving forward. That’s always the temptation. JUST WRITE – you know, forget about transcribing because I need to write. Move the book forward. So the handwritten notes stack up and depress me.

However, writing an opinion piece for a newspaper this week, a completely separate story from the new book, ideas flowed into the newspaper piece from various bits of note-taking. Those scattered notes are all in my head subliminally. I’ve noticed that even if I don’t transcribe, something happens once the words are down. It’s as though the notes imprint on my brain anyway, so even if I don’t transcribe, they are there. They are hitting the page, because the light bulb moments have been recorded. They are no longer hidden but real.

Notes; the scribbles of a mad woman.We’re supposed to be bower birds, us writers. Collecting realizations and moments. So it was with enormous relief when writing this newspaper story that I realized all those untranscribed notes are good for something.

So keep writing your endless Notes to Self. It’s about believing that some of them will be good enough to hit the page. And realizing that even if they’re not transcribed they are real, they are there.

But next week I really have to sort through my notes.

Notes; the scribbles of a mad woman.

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.

9 tips to get your writing done for the day

Here are some of my top tips to get your writing done and avoid procrastination. I hope they are useful for you.

1. Do not answer any emails before you start creative writing! Don’t even open your email programme. Don’t be tempted to have a peek because you’ll waste time answering emails when you must get straight into your writing.

2. Do not check your Facebook page. Resist the temptation. Get straight into your creative writing head space.

3. Do not do any social networking, like Tweeting, Instagram, LinkedIn or anything. Get straight into your creative writing head space.

9 tips to get your writing done for the day

4. Take the phone off the hook (or turn it on silent). Your family and friends will know that you’re fine, just taking time out to write without being disturbed. They will understand that this is your precious time. They’ll send you a text if there’s something urgent. Phone calls distract and yank you out of your creative space.

5. Take what you’re working with you everywhere. It’s surprising how many queues can give you enough time to find the right word or phrase.

6. If you’re taking the children to swimming or their competition sport, don’t take the papers to read whilst you wait for them, take a part of the book that you’re working on.

9 tips to get your writing done for the day

7. Print the page that you left off on, and leave it on the bench in the kitchen or anywhere that you can see it. Keep it top-of-mind. Ideas will come as that page stares at you.

8. Use flashcards, or filing cards and write in large bold print what the current problem is with your work. IE: How to start chapter XYZ. Or XYZ needs a mannerism, what is it? Leave the flashcard somewhere you can see it all the time.

9. Leave the radio off in the car. Use all that driving time to think the storyline through, solve plot line problems.

When you are in the middle of a writing project like a book, it is always alive within you. You carry it with you in your soul. Always let it rest in your heart. No matter where you are what you’re doing, it is always with you. 

9 tips to get your writing done for the day

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.

Story ideas; Where to get them, and how to use them.

Story ideasStory ideas imprint themselves on my brain and I cannot get rid of them until I write them down. They replay themselves, like movies, and I am always subconsciously trying to write the idea or scene down, to describe it.

It’s a very good idea to try and work out how you form your story ideas. If you can figure out how your brain ‘finds a story’ it helps you understand yourself as writer. It can also be the key to helping you get out of a writing slump or writer’s block. 

Story ideasHow are the ‘idea seeds’ for your stories planted? Do they grow from a person you saw or met? Did that person then morph into a character that became a story? Are your ideas born from one anecdotal story that grows into ten more anecdotal stories, until you ultimately have all those yarns knitted together to form a narrative?

Even if all you craft are vignettes, these scenes can be a great way to start a chapter. They help you lead,Story ideas or segue into the body of your chapter. They give you a chance to say something about your character before you go on to write what it is that the chapter has to say. In other words, the chapter needs an interesting place to start so that you can take your story where it has to go. 

Start now to try and figure out where your ideas come from.

Story ideas

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.

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.

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.

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