The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

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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.

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.

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!

On being published: an interview with Martyn Bedford

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordMartyn Bedford will take our writers retreat from September 10-16, 2017, as we focus on nurturing and replenishing your writing skills. Martyn’s five morning classes will teach everything from dialogue to character to voice.

Martyn has written several novels for adults and young adults. His debut novel Acts of Revision was the winner of the Yorkshire Post Best First Work Award. His third MG and YA novel, Twenty Questions for Gloria, received wide acclaim. He has also published numerous short stories in anthologies, newspapers and magazines and his first solo collection is being published by Comma Press in 2017. 

For this week’s blog, I spoke with Martyn about publishing, success, and ‘making it’ as a writer. 

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordWhat is something that you still struggle with as a published writer today?

The same things I struggled with when I started out! Each new work of fiction poses its own set of creative and technical challenges: new characters to create, a different story to tell, the search for an appropriate structure and narrative approach, a new voice to strike, different themes to explore, and so on. Just because you’ve written stories and novels before doesn’t mean you’ve cracked the art and craft of writing or discovered some kind of formula that enables you to reel off the next one without difficulty.

With every piece I’ve written, there has always come a point during drafting or redrafting when one or more of those elements I’ve just listed isn’t working and I start to doubt whether I can fix things this time round. What experience gives you, though, is the degree of self-confidence that comes from knowing you’ve somehow found a way through previous crises. And an awareness that struggle is part and parcel of the creative process.

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordIf you could tell your debut self one thing about being published, what would it be?

Don’t assume that being published means you’ve ‘made it’ or that all will be sweetness and light from now on.

I was thirty-six when I signed the deal for Acts of Revision and, having spent nearly a decade trying and failing to get two previous novels published, I allowed myself to believe that I’d finally entered a kind of writers’ nirvana. What I’ve come to realise in the twenty years since that debut novel came out is that the publishing world is a welcoming place when things are going well for you but can leave you feeling isolated and forgotten when you have the inevitable professional or creative dips. So, I’ve had to learn to enjoy the good times when they come along and hang on in there during the bad times. In the end, all you can do is try to stay focused on your writing and not on the distractions of ‘being a writer’.

On being published: an interview with Martyn BedfordYou published several adult novels before switching to YA. What are some aspects of YA fiction that you think writers across all genres can learn/benefit from?

The distinctions between fiction for adults and young adults aren’t as great as you might think. I certainly don’t feel I write all that differently when I’m working on a YA novel to when I write for an adult readership. It’s still about getting your characters right and telling their story in the best way that you can.

But there are some key characteristics in YA that are worth noting. For example, younger readers tend to prefer stories that keep the plot ticking along more quickly and more obviously than is the case in ‘literary’ fiction for adults (although, of course, plot-driven narratives are also a feature of genre adult fiction, such as crime, thrillers and science fiction.) And while YA, these days, often explores serious and sometimes quite dark themes, this is done through character and story, without slowing the narrative pace. You don’t tend to find the long passages of reflective interiority or thematic exposition in young-adult novels that you often see in literary fiction for adults.

So, I do think there’s something to be said for writers of all kinds of fiction bearing in mind that we are storytellers not message-givers. I’ve read so much YA fiction over the past few years that when I’m reading a literary novel for adults I often catch myself thinking, “Oh, for crying out loud, just get on with it!”

For next week’s blog, I will be asking Martyn to share his favourite creative writing exercises, lessons, and tips for his students, as well as the most common errors he sees his students make.

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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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