The Art of Writing

A Writers Retreat in Tuscany

Tag: writing ideas (page 1 of 2)

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.

Characterization that will keep readers compelled.

What’s the difference between superficial and deep characterization?

Deeper comprehension of point of view and why a character makes certain decisions is deep characterization. Give readers a three dimensional grasp of your protagonist with motive and point of view, not only a superficial description of their voice or hair.

Characterization that will keep readers compelled.

Shallow habits, way of life, routines and mannerisms can lead us to formulate a way to show deeper description. Habits are formed, a way of living arrived at, routines chosen and mannerisms developed. How? Your superficial portrayals can reveal moral fiber and history. Excellent! But generally speaking your reader will really understand the protagonist’s fundamental character when they understand his/her point of view. That’s where you have to show not tell. Scenes that tell a story explain point of view.

Characterization that will keep readers compelled.

I like to establish motive first and foremost. Motive obsesses me for the first 20,000 words at least. I feel that if readers don’t understand the why, then you are not going to convince them, or make them believe. For example, in my new book, why is Leone lonely? Why doesn’t she have any friends in Florence? Why is her mother-in-law such a big part of her life? And why is she, of all people, being targeted by con people? Once I have those deeper characterization issues sorted, with stories and scenes, the plot can fully evolve and my readers will believe everything that happens to Leone.

Your reader should clearly understand why the protagonist makes certain decisions; only then can they understand the problem, action or ‘what’s at stake.’

If, through superficial and deep characterization your protagonist and antagonist are believable and compelling, you’re on your way!

And if you would like to learn more about building a strong, memorable cast in your novel, visit my previous blog on how to create distinguishing aspects for each of your characters. Be sure to also check out my favourite character-building tool, the Character Bible

Characterization that will keep readers compelled.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Buy a new novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

Creative Companionship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Creative Companionship

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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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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