Tag: creative writing

How Photography Can Help Improve Your Writing

Look through your lens before picking up your pen. In Matthew Ferrara’s words, here’s how he uses photography to help flesh out characters and scene setting, and to jumpstart his creativity when he’s feeling stuck. His class on how to Connect the Arts will be at 16:30 on June 5!

As a writer, one of the most important things we do is “set a scene.” The places where our stories unfold are as important as our characters and their actions. Developing interesting and heart-felt scenes is hard work: It’s more than describing the features of a room or buildings on a street. Helping readers get a sense of detail, dimension, sounds and light challenges us to see the picture very clearly in our heads first. Then the words can flow across the page. One way I help myself do this dovetails with my other passion – photography – to visualize real scenes I’ll turn into places for my stories and articles.

As a photographer, each photo is like a dozen opening paragraphs compressed into a few inches of space. Just like an opening chapter, I have to compose each shot as I take it; frame the moment; highlight the action and draw the reader into the action. My camera is like a drafting tool. If I’m going to open a story in the countryside, I drive out to a place near my house and take my camera for a walk. I’ll capture different times of the day, try different angles and play with the light. Sometimes I’ll spot something I almost overlooked, like an odd rock formation or a camouflaged bird in a tree. Those surprises encourage me later to vary my starting points for setting a scene.

Other times, I spend the day photographing people on the street. Catching a waitress in a café or a clever street performer helps me save glimpses of character traits for future stories. A unique smile or a strange piece of clothing journeys from my camera to characters on the page. I’ve learned to “always be on the lookout” for a scene, some action or clever ray of light that can catch my reader’s attention. When I draft articles and need new ideas, I sit with my computer and flip through photos until something jumps out at me. If I get stuck describing a place or a person or even a plate of food, I look back through my shots to give my brain a gentle jolt of creativity.

Connecting different forms of creativity – photography, dancing, painting, cooking – to our writing is a powerful way to think of new ways to compose scenes. Every art form has unique perspectives and powerful ways of using places, people, sights and sounds, just like a writer does. To make my stories come alive, I often start by looking through my lens, before picking up my pen.

Florence at sunset

How to create interesting characters, Part 2.

How to create interesting charactersContinuing our look at character building, here is the second part of my series on how to create interesting characters. These two paragraphs were written by Martyn Bedford, our 2017 Art of Writing teacher. It’s wonderful advice.

It’s important that your character develops in the course of the story. By the end they should be different (either practically or emotionally) than they were at the outset. This can be subtle or dramatic but the lead character needs to have changed in some way. If they end the narrative as they began it, unaltered by what happens along the way, there is no story.

To be ‘real’, a character needs to be particularized not generalized – by that, I mean they must not be stereotyped, but individual and unique. Paint him or her in small details rather than broad brushstrokes.

How to create interesting charactersIn other news:

Emma Fraser, our Art of Writing manuscript assessor, tells us that Bloodhound Books are opening up for submissions on March 10th. This could be a great ‘in’ if you are working on something with suspense.


And why are publishers still coming out with hardbacks first?


Lastly, the link below is a nice Infographic from Global English Editing and the Expert Editor.

On the writing routines of 20 famous writers. I enjoyed it because am always struggling with my own writing routine!


How to create interesting characters

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Writers often ask me where they should start their story. They have the idea in their heads. Scenes, thoughts or characters whirl in their imaginations. That’s where you should start writing. With whatever it is that is tugging at your mind.

This point is clearer, in an old Blog post recently found by a reader: Start with a fragment. John then sent a series of questions. I have outlined them here for this week’s Blog. I hope this helps!

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

I wonder about your research methods, and how much, if at all, they vary for non-fiction or fiction. Do you scout sites/locations, just as film crews do?

With my Creative Non-Fiction books I always scout the real location. Though what ends up on the page may vary greatly from the original site, I find it necessary to go to the location.

Was sketching the only way you could recreate an appropriate scene? I expect that you have also used many images, both your own photos, and those available on the web, to provide colour, texture and detail to stimulate your imagination, but are there any of the old mezzadria farmhouses still preserved in a state that reflects the early 20th century?

When I sketched the old Tuscan farmhouse setting for Death in the Mountains I needed to understand the feel of the living room and kitchen. If I know what it looks like in my imagination, readers will too. I won’t get confused, so my readers won’t get confused. Stories often play out in kitchens and living rooms. So we must know exactly their dimensions and building materials. Knowing those elements gives us sight, sound, smell and touch. If I know what the floor is made from, I can imagine the sound of footsteps, or creaking wooden floor boards. The sounds of children playing on floor boards etc.

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Do you ‘walk through’ your rooms/scenes, in or out of character, to get the feel of the setting and to capture ‘their’ reactions? I guess I’m trying to see how you visualise what you are creating.

Yes, when I’m writing, I am inside my head so much that I don’t even see my office, I see my site or location. My characters walk. How many steps does it take? When Artemio was attacked in his barn, he crawled to the house. How far away was the barn to the house? He fell against the front door. How? What exactly did his body do? How did Bruna drag him in, a woman on her own? How did Felice and Bruna drag him up the stairs? How close was the door to the stairs? You have to totally immerse yourself physically and mentally in the scene’s action, understand everything about it. Only then you can describe it. You have to feel it happening.

But I Don’t Know Where to Start!

Does it in any way approach being an observer, describing settings, even ‘recording’ conversations?

Yes, I record conversations and interviews all the time. Try to get the nuance of voices, dialect, sayings, odd phraseology. Tone too – gravelly, high pitched. Voices reveal so much and later, when I’m transcribing I can find so much more description.

Thanks so much John! Don’t hesitate to write back, everyone, with any thoughts or questions.

I hope others are as interested in your answers as I am. Thanks again for sharing aspects of your writing process with us.


The Adventure Continues! Meet Matthew Ferrara, the new man behind the Art of Writing.

Meet Matthew FerraraMESSAGE FROM LISA; It’s such a pleasure to introduce you to my friend and now business partner, Matthew Ferrara. Together we are planning the most exciting writers retreat in Florence, as The Art of Writing moves from the mountains of Tuscany to the heart of the renaissance. Here, in his words, Matthew talks about what writing means to him:

As a philosopher and keynote speaker, you might say I’m in the business of words. Whether it’s on stage, on social media or in articles, the right words at the right time make a big difference in the lives of readers, listeners and followers. It’s the responsibility that comes with having a voice that can reach so many – or just one person – which every writer must develop, earn and respect. So it’s with great excitement that in 2018 I now have the opportunity to add that voice to The Art of Writing Retreats in Tuscany. 

Nearly five years ago I attended my first Art of Writing retreat, hosted in the hills outside Tuscany, by the accomplished journalist and author Lisa Clifford. It was a week to disconnect from the daily hustle and develop my skills as a wordsmith. It turned out to be a pivotal moment in my writing style, as I wrote about in “Italian Bus Drivers” at the end of the week: 

Meet Matthew Ferrara‘To rest is to restore: not just energy, but a sense of normalcy. What you find is that, while resting, your “non-technical” qualities re-emerge. Imagination, memory, enthusiasm. Not just copy, paste, or send. As we rebalance ourselves, opportunities emerge. We gladly explore new neighbourhoods, food, ideas. Growth, in all its forms, is exercised by rest. It should really be practiced daily.

But rest is a hard place to reach. Perhaps that’s why there are Italian bus drivers, who are the worst in the world. Ask the stomachs in the back seat. Rarely has a driver been good enough to uncoil the round, rolling roads of an Italian hilltop for his passengers. Instead, his driving exaggerates everything we hope to take a break from – the frenzied hurry of our chaotically-connected modern existence.’

That piece wasn’t just a reflection on what it means to attend a writers retreat or take a week-long creativity vacation. It was a lesson for me in what being a master of words could do every day. In a world where the pace often seems like an Italian bus careening down the hill, we can use words to help others and ourselves take a break. To write so that others may immerse themselves in the magic of our words and emerge renewed. That’s the gift that works for writer and reader alike.

Meet Matthew Ferrara

From that lesson, I would return to the Art of Writing multiple times over the years, ultimately leading to the opportunity to become a partner in the project this year. It’s the chance for me to make words worthwhile every day as we seek other writers around the world to come rest, recharge and write with us for a week. 

Therein lies one more lesson in the magic of words: The writers retreat. The word isn’t about removing oneself from the world, to somehow separate from what’s holding us back. Rather, it’s about learning to re-treat yourself to the restorative power of creative writing. That’s what I hope we’ll continue to do at the Art of Writing. Help others build their competence and confidence so that they, too, can turn writing into a treat they’ll love every day.

Meet Matthew Ferrara

Overcoming Your Fear of Writing

Overcoming Your Fear of WritingWhy do we build so many obstacles to our creativity? Why do we let inner barriers grow and stop us from writing? We listen to our Bully Voice, we let fear win. Then we avoid writing. So often being with other writers helps us to break through the negative voice that lives inside us. Simply being with like-minded creatives helps us to believe that we are writers. We only have to write.

When away on retreat every voice, every writer’s voice, touches me. But this year one voice made me cry. In this Blog, writer Nancy Storie shares with us the story of how she broke free from her fear of writing. Here Nancy tells us how she has always dreamed of writing. How she has bought every book ever published on how to write, yet she has dreaded actually putting pen to paper. From a small farm in Texas, is a big new voice.

They have no idea how brave I believe them to be – nor how much I feel like a poser among them.  Some suspect by this point.  I see the bubble over their heads – why is she here?  Does she write or just talk about writing?

Overcoming Your Fear of Writing
Lisa Clifford and Guest Martha Ashby, Director of HarperCollins Commercial Women’s Fiction UK

Well no, I don’t talk about writing.  Hardly ever speak the word – writer.  I am not at a writing retreat, I am on vacation in Italy and just happened to be at the same agritourism where a writing retreat was taking place.  You will not find writer on my fb page. The word alone, whispered in the night, can almost send me into respiratory arrest. It is permissible today to have fears and voice them so I didn’t want the writing world to be left out.  I have adopted it as the object of my fear. 

I am an equal opportunity fearist. I fear not writing well, I fear not writing at all, I fear someone reading my writing.  I fear not being in control. I fear feeling stupid.

Overcoming Your Fear of Writing
Martyn Bedford

I have dreamed of being a writer and I have made great success out of researching How to Write.  If you want to know who’s written a book on writing, I can tell you.  In order to avoid taking any of their wisdom and actually applying it, I then read these writers novels to see if I believe they can really write.  Or if their writing career stalled and they wrote about writing to keep the publication deal alive.  And yes, I read the novels of writers who put on workshops before I sign up for the workshop. Sometimes, I have to read more than one work, just in case the first one was a fluke of success and the second or third one is a bomb.

I now have so many books from my research on how to write, and samples of the writing of those I have researched, that I had to buy a special cabinet to store them in.  The Writer’s Cabinet otherwise known as the “Vault of Knowledge Not Yet Applied.” I might mention that in addition to all the research on how to write and the samples of how to write, I also own a new pc, a new smartphone, a new tablet and a nifty wireless keyboard, all to assist in the writing that I am afraid to do.

Overcoming Your Fear of Writing
The Art of Writing September 2017 – Nurture and Replenish Your Writing Skills

FEAR, my four letter word, has paralyzed my ability to put pen to page or fingers to keyboard. It has stalked me for years, moving to each new place I went, intruding on my solitude, haunting my sleep and robbing me of peace. It followed me to Tuscany. 

“Leave me be, I’m on vacation.”

“No you’re not, you are trying to write.”

“OK, I am, but this time is different. I have found a tribe of amazing women who have struggled with you too. These courageous women have silenced your hissing voice, defied your doubt throwing insults and ignored your multitude of distractions. They write. In spite of you.”

“Ahhh, yes, but I’ll be back to visit you some day.”

“Probably, but we will be waiting. And we have found Courage, which beats fear every time.”

Overcoming Your Fear of Writing

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.

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.

We had a 10 day holiday, just enough time to really taste the area around Nice, Cannes and Antibes. I chose Vence for our Air B and B home with a pool because it is only a 5 hour drive from Florence. My mother is 90 years old and I am always scared to lose airport access in case I have to leave Europe at a moment’s notice. So south eastern France seemed like a good choice. Easy to get back home if I needed to fly out quickly, yet we were in another country on holiday.

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.Our Air B and B house was 2 minutes above Vence, which has a higher altitude than the lower lying coastal towns. The traffic to get in and out of Nice to Vence was appalling and took us way longer than anticipated. On a map it says 20 minutes but in reality there were road works and crazy holiday traffic. So a day at the beach in Nice involved a lot of traffic.

I couldn’t recommend staying in the Col de Vence (mountains of Vence) area highly enough. This time of year it is so hot in the southern beach resorts of Europe and Vence, and though not the most picturesque village in the region, it is COOL! It also has everything you’ll need. When travelling with five teenagers it’s good to be near a chemist, supermarket, medical centre, takeaway, news agency, thriving piazza with cafes and the odd pub/bar for the older teens to ‘go out’ to.

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.From Vence we did day trips to:

  • Gourdon
  • Bar dur Loup
  • Tourrettes
  • Coursegoules
  • Saint Paul de Vence

The favourite for everyone ended up being Saint Paul de Vence.

A South of France, Provence Food Tour is essential and was probably the highlight of my trip. This tour by The French Way was fantastic – tailor made for the likes of me or any food nut. Marion, a lovely young lady, owns and runs the business herself and is passionate about everything to do with cuisine, wine and oil. I would drive 5 hours right now to be with Marion and her food again.

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.

We had a Provence olive oil tasting at Maison Bremond but unfortunately I had a wee tussle with the French ‘manager olive oil teacher’ because she was treating us like we were utter idiots so I told her. Marion had to intervene when I went on to say she was making me feel very uncomfortable. Anyway, the ‘manager olive oil teacher’ and I made up and became friends (sort of) but still, I would tread warily in that shop on 15, rue du Pont Vieux, Nice. Especially when she called out ‘Bonjour’ to a perusing American client who responded ‘I’m just looking.’ To which our French manager olive oil teacher indignantly replied ‘I am only saying Good Day, I’m not asking you to buy,’ with a roll of her eyes.

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.A Wine Tasting was also necessary. The wines are so different from our normally quaffed Italian wines. I thought it a good idea to also go as ecologically sound as possible and chose A Taste of Nice: Tour de France of Organic Wines. Sublime! And seemingly without a headache – does it get better than that?

A day on the water was also a good idea – to see the French Riviera from the sea is beautiful. Book early on this boating idea – it was really hard to find a place for 9 people with 2 weeks to go to arrival time.

By far the best food we had was in Mar sur Loup. If you want a gorgeous lunch in a leafy garden go to L’Ecole des Filles – set in the old village school. 380 av Amiral de Grasse, telephone: 04 93094020

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.

I rather liked all those French beaches but my Italian husband was not enamoured. Frankly, I didn’t know what he was grumbling about as I couldn’t see any difference between the Italian way of beaching and the French way of beaching. Both require loads of umbrellas, lined up row after row with easy access to a café/bar, shower and any other kind of soothing beach amenity. Comfort being the name of the game at the seaside in both France and Italy. Probably the French recliners were shoved closer together, that would be the only real difference I could see.

If you have any tips to add to these, please comment below – I am going back to this area so would love to try your ideas. Thank you in advance!

My tips for a trip to the south east of France.

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.

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.

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