First blog…last rites

So what’s a blog? A question to answer as we go along, maybe. Is it tone, is it format, is it regularity?…hmm. This one might be a blog or not, but, whatever it is, has its beginnings in a hodgepodge of thoughts, insights, ideas and general stuff collected in the interests of discovering some of the ins and outs of fiction writing.

With any luck it will have, as promised, some of the “art and craft” of story writing. Ars and techne in equal measure with maybe an extra bit of ars showing for fans of Sid James.

Not sure yet what the direction will be – if a hodgepodge can have a direction – but there should be some hints and tips among the waffle, largely culled from people of great insight, sometimes just things that have struck me along the way through my own learning journey. Anyway,  it’s the result of notes made for teaching and learning how to write. It deals largely in prose, largely in traditional forms, with maybe a few extras along the way.

Like most people who like writing I’ve been doing it from before I can properly remember, certainly at a time when I was too young, or at least not precocious enough to have opinions about narrative, turning points, focalisation, character arcs and the like. Like most people who keep their writing interests up, there was an ongoing need  to slap something down on paper (or  screen), some representation of the thoughts and ideas and the various worlds and characters that inhabit those minds with no great destiny or responsibility of their own and plenty of time to chuck away.

I’m lucky enough to have been both a learner and a teacher of creative writing. Learning shouldn’t stop. As a teacher, particularly, there was always learning to do. A teacher learns by delivering their recent thoughts to an audience that needs clarity and cogency. A teacher learns by rehearsing what they think they know and then having it challenged by learners. A teacher learns by sharing insights with a developing peer group.  So by reaching towards some personal development, buoyed by an odd success here and there, and by offering this out to students and seminar groups, there has often been a clear sense of improvement – enough at least to be handy to pass on.

In fact, being a teacher and student roles combine and this blog offers a bit of each, what the learner might be gaining from the teacher and what the teacher might want the learner to know.

So, having been introduced by new people to new ways of shaping story-thoughts, new ways of considering what literature was and what story could be I did end up with a mass of notes and some of them should find their way here. Hopefully there’ll be  insights of one sort or another with a few tips here and there, hoping to get a discussion going and help wherever possible to take people to the next stage for their – skills, knowledge and technique.


When do you throw the books away?

Three things happened recently, all of which conspired to remind me – not that I needed reminding – of an old story my father enjoys telling.

The three things were: my youngest son’s book exchange day at school; managing the house shelving around some long-mooted building work; and getting increasingly joyful about the practicalities of Kindle.

Worn spines on old books next to ipad showing online version of Book of KellsMy father’s story, one of many that have given good service over the years, hinges on his sense of early poverty. It’s in some ways a proud sense of early poverty as it gives plenty of scope for the making-good bits of the life story that can come after. It’s not only financial poverty either. He’s particularly conscious at the lack of intellectual stimulation given to youngsters  in the Yorkshire mining communities of the thirties, of which he has rather astringent memories.

His story has plenty to interest anyone who likes a proto-Dickensian vision of such troubled environments. His story revolves around The Book. They only had one – or at most three, the story can be adapted to suit the credulity of the latest audience. If they were lucky, the eldest two children, having finished their Sunday bread and dripping tea and having scoured their hands with carbolic, would be allowed to take a seat and look at The Book. It was placed on their knees. They could only turn the pages under supervision. The Book was a handsome Wonderbook of Wholesome Knowledge for Pre-war Boys and Girls, at least in the version I tell my own children now. It must have seemed a marvel.

There came a time though when the book disappeared. It was given away to some passing junk collector. My father, bereft, asked where The Book had gone. His mother replied, ‘well, you’d read it.’

This story has come in various ways over the years and the one here is my own edit, one that serves the purpose of some other thoughts at the moment. My own children have hundreds of books. We’re proud to be the sort of family that has books and has them out and visible. Not in a neat display either, but in double-stacked shelves and piles of things that are being read or meant to be being read or just nice reminders that they’re there. We have books with multi-cracked spines and sunlotion stained pages, others that spent months in a rucksack, some that are pristine, one or two that are signed and were expensive. The kids have books from childhoods that weren’t their own, preserved and handed down whether they want it or not, Ladybirds, Blytons and all. They’re all precious. We can’t throw a single one away.

I’ve tried. I’ve made a pile of things I haven’t read or won’t read again or didn’t like in the first place and had the whole lot ready for the Heart Foundation deposit. Then I remember how I came by this book or that, or I see a scrawl in the cover, or know that I own it because of a promise to read, or a longed-for connectivity, or a memory of whens and what-ifs. They’re impossible to get rid of, even the paperback 1950s versions of obscure Restoration dramas I’ve not mustered an interest in for twenty years – the fact is I own them because of a promise to engage and I don’t feel I can back out of the deal so uncouthly.

Back to my son’s book exchange day. He was told they could bring books into school to swap. He very cheerily pops upstairs and comes down with the full set of David Walliams novels which he got at Christmas and simply loved. As parents we entered a state halfway between anger and disbelief. These are new books – by which we mean bought within the last two years. You can’t give those away.

‘Yes, but I’ve read them.’ Says my son.

Ah, so what we’ve got is a clash of values. The youth of today perhaps have new systems of possession, gifting, storing, keeping and disposing that are entirely at odds with even my own upbringing, let alone that of my father. Books are now to be read, enjoyed as texts and then their physical husks to be parted with. This is something alien to me and my cherishing, hoarding sense of the holistic literary experience, one which has its bibliophile clutter of firsts and proofs and trade-editions, where a book once loved is soon to be re-read, where each dog-ear and underlining is a friend, where a stain on a page from some once-upon-a-time coffee will usher a memory of when and where and can bring an explosion in the mind of sensations otherwise inaccessible through age.

Yes it’s all different now. I am deeply enamoured of my Kindle which, bought in 2014 after a bit of tentative deliberation, has never failed to amaze me. Dozens of books in one handheld pack. Online shares of quotes and favourite passages. Dictionaries and vocab-builders – particularly useful in French so that I can instantly forget new vocabulary and feel guilty. Page memory across different devices. What’s not to like, as the saying goes. Even the constant hectoring by Amazon’s tag-based marketing has a sort of desperate charm, like sitting with a permanent personal Willy Loman or Gill off the Simpsons.

But can Kindle provide the necessary therapy for my generation of bibliophiles and its indigestible clutter? Can it ease that belief that material goods are something to cling to, at least for those of us whose parents had nothing. Is an aversion to patina something the next generation will grow up with, happy with only those fine editions that they chose to have on shelves, unread because all reading is done on screen? Perhaps there will be no books on shelves for the future-home’s white-cube rooms. Perhaps blocks of bound paper will be saved only to refurb Olde Worlde pubs. Or, perhaps, there’ll be one or two people that feel some deeper atavistic need, and who choose to find and preserve their grandfather’s Wonderbook.



Academic Profiles – top tips and seven common faults – how to improve

Surprisingly, given the common sense of most business practice, universities are often less than excellent in communicating their greatest asset.

What most people want from university is to engage with staff, staff who will help make an experience for us, who will transfer to us their interests, wisdom, contacts, scope, skills, enthusiasm and brilliance. We come, whether as students, collaborators, employers or employees, looking for intellectual and professional charisma and while we may find it when we get there, it’s not always evident in the preliminary online offering.

There are two main online access routes through to the university world. One is the academic product itself, traditionally in the form of arcane texts but increasingly evident in films, sound files, activities or interventions. The other is the digital marketing brochure, rich in smiley seminar sessions, well-sampled sound bites and buildings forever washed in sunlight.

There’s an opportunity however to develop better practice in what lies between these, to show a broad, non-specialist but intelligent readership what differences the university system makes to the world and what part its individual staff members provide.

This is not an altogether straightforward task. To begin with there’s a slippery tightrope between the many audiences, which range from prospective students to prospective peer reviewers. There’s also a far too easy slide into the dry, mechanical horrors of a CV listing, jammed unreadably with ISSN numbers, colons and a subtitular warren of similar-sounding publications and conferences.

As a best aim, an academic profile should demonstrate how staff members engage with enquiring minds at all levels, giving a true sense of scholarly achievement and its wider beneficiaries, while at the same time showing you as an individual to be a model of intellectual agility, enthusiasm and scholarly generosity.

Or at least it should be something that you, as an academic, spend time on and take pride in. As a check list or an initial push towards improvement, here are a few common failings observed ‘in the field’, including one or two tips, quick wins and seven deadly and all too familiar profiling sins:

1 – The Corpse – profiles that are not up-to-date

There are plenty of dead profiles in the digital world, often because the academic has moved on and institutional systems can’t cope with absences. It can also be caused by a failure of ownership in institutions where academics have either no direct governance or are not encouraged to feel that the institutional representation is also a personal one.

Sometimes profiles are just a victim of general busyness, most evident in those that have been overworked at one moment in time with no ongoing regular commitment – “My current research will be presented at the state of the future conference in 2010…” etc.

It is good practice to make sure that any profiles that are created link back to something that is regularly updated. Try to avoid building just for the here and now; be careful with “in progress”, “going to”, “soon”, “this summer”, “current”, and so on unless you need to use them because, one, you know you have an audience that will be regularly checking back and, two, you are personally committed to efficient updating. Otherwise, be as time neutral as possible and do enough basic gardening to make your plot looked lived in.

2 – The Invertebrate – profiles with no spine

It’s common to describe airy activities without showing actual scholarly substance, even more common to assume that the audience will grasp the substance from bald specialist reference points.

Somewhere, the description of your work needs to have convincing and accessible evidence of originality, rigour and significance. Not just what activities have been undertaken, but what effects you have had. Test what you’ve put on the page against basic questions: What have you changed? What have you created or developed? Who has benefitted? How great is your reach?

Beware of just listing titles for a start. That’s not to say the CV of papers, books and conferences doesn’t go up there somewhere, but apart from the length of the list, what’s being demonstrated to those who haven’t read the papers themselves?Spare a thought for the visitor to your pages, the audience that comes from outside your specialism. Be very clear as to the basics of research activity: What are the questions your research is trying to answer – why is it important to answer them – what contribution are you making to a step change in the debate?

Imagery, moving image or sound should function as part of the delivery of this. When using audio-visual material, check how it contributes to the audience’s understanding of what your contribution is to a scholarly or research base. If an image is viewed as merely decorative then does it need to be there at all.

Originality. Rigour. Significance.

Share the passion… with evidence

3 – The Ivory Tower – academic profiles with no teaching

This principle isn’t just for research. In teaching, what originality and rigour do you bring? What evidence of classroom impact do you have? Or outside the institution, what professional bodies or communities benefit from your work?

Profiles tend to be driven by research, partly for institutional and partly for personal reasons. Traditionally, universities were proud not to teach as such. Learned doyens expatiated to attentive listeners who then taught themselves through scholarly diligence. New university structures, methods and institutions now have professionalised teaching at the core of a modern university experience and uni teachers are expected to be more than just experts on their pet subjects.

Acronymous titles of seminar-series, lists of modules developed, or dry reflections on the patterns of pedagogy in the tutorial environment are less engaging than something that really demonstrates teacherly skill. Videos, audio recordings or just plain text, whatever the method, show that passionate, inspiring, effective teaching is part of your academic communication.

4 – The Lionskin – profiles with bold claims

Not many academics are great spin-jockeys. In a profession built around truth-seekers it’s usually unwise to resort to buzz-words, fudging or lies. “The prodigious twenty-year-old’s internationally-renowned, world-leading, paradigm-shifting debut essay due out next month…” etc

“World-leading”, “international”, “influential”, “ground-breaking” are phrases to use sparingly and advisedly, especially about yourself or your project, especially when unsubstantiated. It sounds obvious, but there are plenty of suspect claims of stardom out there. A download from Fiji does not make work “internationally acclaimed”. A unique niche topic does not of itself make the investigator a “world leader”. Leadership implies followers and breaking ground implies that others will be building on it. Everyone who counts is likely to already know you’re world-leading if you really are; if they don’t but they should, try showing rather than telling.

Calmly excellent is what an academic profile should be – quieter confidence beats bombast and hyperbole in most rigorous research circles. Let others judge and let them judge by the evidence you give.

5 – The Shaggy Dog – overly chronological tales

There’s often a fair few paragraphs of early career development to get through before you make it to the meat of a profile. “Having won the handwriting prize in my first year at St Hildegard’s I took a keen and early interest in mathematics especially subtraction…” etc.

Yes, the profile is a narrative of sorts. It’s worth reflecting however on the journalistic trend that produced the inverted pyramid of “best stuff at the top”. Your audience isn’t captive so don’t waste time gradually working a narrative that builds towards that late career professorship and Nobel prize.

Whatever is best about your career to date, put a couple of neat references to it at the top.

6 – The repeat groove – failure to edit …

The trouble with being an expert is you’ll be called upon to repeat your best stuff at many a live interaction. Chances are a developing essay has five conference presentations around the same issues. Consultants will be consulting regularly on what they’re known for.

The quick fix for an academic profile is a CV-style list, often chronologically delivered, and similar work comes up again and again in a range of forms. Many profiles – as with many CVs [resumes] – seem expecting to be judged by their length rather than their clarity or quality. Beware of padding out with minor activities, especially in early career. Try to think who will be trying to read the page, how you might help them through with digestible parcels of information, and what impression of quality and significance they might be carrying away with them.

A strong recommendation is to have clear titles, bullets where necessary, structured themes and an excellent summary first sentence for each section.

7 – The open-mic of Euphues – profiles of inappropriate tone

Originality, significance and rigour should be shown as though writing for an intelligent but non-specialist audience. This is true of any communication of academic work outside the peer group. Strange that it is not in more evidence on university websites given that funding bids and conference places and publishing deals require exactly this.

The most extreme problems are either that the tone of a profile replicates a job application, through which professional restraint and bland adherence to protocol are thought optimal tactics, or it replicates a half-remembered philosophy lecture with a fuzz of large and very woolly words.

What tone to employ, what style, what rhetorical devices? Well, there’s plain English and there’s English so plain it fails to function. There’s academic phrasing and there’s obstructive pedantry. Yet, between the Sestos and Abydos of the tonal spectrum, between pleonastic Heroes and the off-duty parataxis drivers, there’s ample space to sound scholarly without sounding an arse.

Your style will be your own but there are basic rules: try not to repeat phrases especially not at the beginning of every sentence, (Dr X wrote this, Dr X then wrote that); try to avoid vocabulary that ties you to a bygone era or excessive lucubration; and never, ever try to sound cooler than your undergrads.

Your academic profile – concluding notes

Profiles come in many guises, from those that are out-of-date copies of a CV to those that throb with un-evidenced marketing spin. In between are some that are confident, informative and interesting.

Most include the right basic material but many are incomplete, poorly ordered or poorly edited. If you’re responsible for a profile then give it a health check. Have you got, for example:

  • A short, effective opening statement showing excellence and compelling further engagement
  • A brief, engaging and focussed overview of your career
  • A statement of research interests appreciable to a non-expert
  • A means to make immediate contact
  • A set of premium, recent research achievements, suitably delivered and connected to further reading and contact
  • A sample of how you use your teaching skills to communicate your expert knowledge
  • Evidence of the esteem in which your research is held beyond the institution
  • Evidence of the (potential) value of your research to those outside the direct scholarly circle
  • Clicks outward from well-edited lists of outputs that allow for download or further information.

Unfortunately the academic profile is the last thing on many people’s lists of things to get right and the institutions that require them often provide little direct help.

Some academics have no profile at all, which seems slightly neglectful, if not ungrateful. Others have a fat paperback’s-worth of information that may prove undigestible for human beings.

Maybe the world-wide few who can fully appreciate your scholarly work will not be judging you by your, or institutional page. However you may be able to make the most of your next circle of influence and, in between the PhD studentship and the Nobel Prize, there is a ladder of recognition that might be easier to climb by avoiding one or two of the most common errors.

Do make time to do something – and a bit more time to do something good.

How (not) to write a novel #7 – language for emotional range

A couple of sobering thoughts this week along with home truths and lessons from the mouths of pre-teen upstarts. So, why wasn’t my son able to finish that manuscript I was testing on him… Story not quite exciting enough? Characters not believable enough? I thought I had put serious craft into this one.. Well, says my eleven year old, who’s just been through some pretty in-depth literary analysis of A Christmas Carol at school, the thing about really brilliant authors is that the emotional value is underpinned linguistically at every stage.

Well, he didn’t use exactly those words, but that was the gist I took away from the conversation. Could this be shaped into a valuable lesson or should I just bury myself along with my badly clobbered pride?

Staring into space over the heads of those engrossed in the Xmas X-box (will any writing get done in a home with such an addictive narrative engagement toy?), I did nurse a thought or two about the things that perhaps I was beginning to neglect, things that are first base-camp technique, ‘the basics’, yes, but those many essentials which, if we’re not careful, we begin to leave out.

What is it about the Basics? It seems to be the first thing to disappear for those of us who drift and dream and remain mediocre. It’s easy to become sloppy drivers who no longer check the mirrors and take corners in third gear. Really though, these basics should be so engrained that they can never be forgotten, like Ronnie O’Sullivan’s cue action or Nijinsky’s plié.

Those who are at the very top end of their game also seem to keep revisiting those basics again and again to see if they can claw an extra 0.002% advantage over similarly matched top-end opponents.  Concert pianists don’t stop practising scales as they get among the big audiences. They don’t decide they can get away with a couple of bum notes in the andante as long as they’ve got a stack of big guns for the tortuous bit. No, the best musicians do more scales as they get better. They make sure every note has every possible chance of being perfect, just as Heston Blumental takes burgers to new heights by getting every element from bun to cheese to work its hardest, just as Brendan Rogers coaches perfection into each element of… well some analogies are better than others but you get the point. The last slow steep climb towards perfection may well require some more of what the beginners have to do – but better.

So, perhaps, for those who’ve improved a lot but are wondering where their next development is coming from, there’s some chance to improve a few elements by looking back at the writing basics. My chance this winter was to look at what kids are expected to deal with when faced with a page of prose in class, kids whose teachers are reading Dickens or Poe with them and asking ” so what words does the author use to make the mood more sad/scary/jublillant etc?”

Young literature students, those who are just beginning to recognise how textual features operate, are asking why the writer has used particular words in particular combinations; they will be looking at whether the word choices are commonplace or unusal, whether the sentence length makes us ponder or skip, what the combined run of images builds up to en masse; they will be looking at how all these things contribute to the emotional impact of the character, setting and point of narrative development.

For anyone who writes regularly these things tend to be as natural as adding decent punctuation. Yet if we stop every so often and try to become newly conscious of these things, our writing must surely improve. What effect does that comma have? What added value does that adverb bring? What stray connotations does that noun have?

Imagery into emotion

It’s a fact of basic literary intuition that, when given a choice between “shout”, “bellow” or “roar”, the last of these has intimations of power and ferocity that the two others do not. Lions roar. This could develop into a ham-fisted paragraph grunting with bestial allusions, of course, but it could also be a quick hint that is developed later, something that triggers a momentary recognition of leonine capacity in a character who will be rounded and filled later in the work.

Ask any school student. A whole literacy lesson can be spent spotting such things and grasping the subconscious impact on a reader whose concentration is elsewhere. Wordsworth doesn’t just have yellow daffodils, they are “golden”. This gives a sense of value as well as colour, so the effect can then be reinforced at the point of the “wealth to me” in a later line. A few literary classes later and the poem can be broken up into its ideas of relative value systems and the individual building blocks of the work can be brought under the microscope.

As a experienced writer keen to improve you may find you’re not always fully conscious of these techniques as you employ them, some will come  automatically or fortuitously. If however they are coming randomly, then perhaps this is an area to improve your craft. We could all get better just by homing in occasionally on an odd piece of text to check whether all our words are worth writing and that we are wringing maximum value out of each. [Or rather not “wringing” as we don’t want connotations of damp laundry – one to go back to… maybe “mining” or “extracting” or “sucking” or maybe this is one for just plain “getting”].

Dickens has examples on pretty much every page. Here’s a favourite of mine at the meeting between Mr  Toodle and Mr Dombey over the fate of the infant Paul.

Thus arrested on the threshold as he was following his wife out of the room, Toodle returned and confronted Mr Dombey alone. He was a strong, loose, round-shouldered, shuffling, shaggy fellow, on whom his clothes sat negligently: with a good deal of hair and whisker, deepened in its natural tint, perhaps by smoke and coal-dust: hard knotty hands: and a square forehead, as coarse in grain as the bark of an oak. A thorough contrast in all respects to Mr Dombey, who was one of those close-shaved close-cut moneyed gentlemen who are glossy and crisp like new bank-notes, and who seem to be artificially braced and tightened as by the stimulating action of golden showerbaths. Dombey and Son, Chapter 2

Our emotions towards these characters are set in this scene and take us onward through the book. Our contempt for Dombey’s arrogance and his ignorance of human feeling through the pursuit of power and money are given in an elegant paragraph here towards the end of that scene. Dombey is money. His clean crispness is artifice and even his cleanliness is associated with non-functional, decorative gold furnishings. Dickens plays this against the natural state of Toodle, whose oaken strength comes through above his grubbiness and for all his shortcomings owns an earthy honesty.

It’s stretching it to say a page of Dickens is a tight construct where no word could be changed without the structure collapsing, but there’s plenty of master craftsmanship going on and with a bit of observant reading even pretty reluctant school kids can see him building towards great moments and interesting characters through subtle stylistic choices. The emotional connectivity in the passage above is done entirely through the choice of imagery. Like all masters of the craft Dickens exploits the complementary function of word, tone and the actual goings on of character and environment. The emotion we feel towards his characters in their situations is underpinned throughout by meaningful linguistic choices.

Alexander Pope was eloquent on sound and sense working in tandem and the necessity of craftspersonly awareness. Each element of the page should be a rhetorical gift:

True Ease in Writing comes from Art, not Chance,
As those move easiest who have learn’d to dance,
‘Tis not enough no Harshness gives Offence,
The Sound must seem an Echo to the Sense.
Soft is the Strain when Zephyr gently blows,
And the smooth Stream in smoother Numbers flows;
But when loud Surges lash the sounding Shore,
The hoarse, rough Verse should like the Torrent roar.
When Ajax strives, some Rocks’ vast Weight to throw,
The Line too labours, and the Words move slow; (Alexander Pope, An Essay on Criticism)

So, with a page of your own prose, what rhetorical gifts are you giving? What would a school class be able to point to if asked how the author has created the mood or the character or the setting? Would each word become delightful when brought under the microscope of close scrutiny? Would there be a delicacy of development, finely wrought through clever stylistic choices? Would there be emotional range and weight and elegant nuancing throughout?

It is in these details that the emotional range can be properly crafted, either bringing some extra force to a single high emotive factor or tempering the primary emotion with some delicate balance. A keen reader might be able to track an image of animal ferocity through from early sneak references such as a growl into something that is more key to an interaction or narrative turn. Or they might take an emotionally rough-riding page apart to discover the disconcerting swing of one image to its opposite.

While looking at the minutiae of your word choices, what about focussing on the way a well chosen word or two can act like seasoning in a stew, adding the lemon zing to cut into overly rich sauce.  Well used, a phrase might be repeated but gain new weight and new meaning from what surrounds it.

On any powerful page  the elements that bring the emotion out have been built carefully in through many earlier words, lines and scenes. Again and again, we see how a writer has the chance, through consciously excellent choices of word in one direction or another, to create something that is far more fulfilling than, say,  a straightforward stab at woe. If you are fully in control of your linguistic choices you get the best chance to profit from complex elements in the emotional palette shifting one degree here and there to suggest what will come or develop what lingers in the memory. Every word can contribute.

Tips for writing: check your emotional range

Heighten your awareness

Written fiction allows that particular blend of explanatory depth and emotional connectivity that makes it still attractive and valuable despite the distractions for the Xbox generation.   Whether as a writer you like a meticulous planning session or something a bit more suck-and-see, it’s worth training yourself to judge the emotional weight of what you’re building. Test slabs of prose occasionally and investigate whether each word is giving its best effort.

While you’re reading try making notes on the emotions that are being pulled from you as you read. Can you give them all names: love, delight, hate, fear, gratitude? Or is there something more tacit, something that is in-between single adjectives or even something better understood with a diacricital nuance such as Bartok used to show quarter tones when jotting down rural songs.  Whatever your own system [“love/regret +7§”] give the emotional value a tally of intensity and then look at what language effects have heightened that emotion. Look beyond the plot structure – this is important but part of other aspects of development. Look at what a prose work gives that would not be used by, for example, a screenwriter (and of course read Karl Iglesias’ Writing for Emotional Impact for those elements that are).

For a bit of an awareness-heightening drill on a Sunday morning, try checking through what you’ve written on two different pages from separate sections. How similar is the prose, how great the emotional range? Are these sections connecting, if so what language signals this? What have you done to establish the tone in each? How does this complement and enhance the action, activity, character and dialogue.

Plan towards emotional range and impact

Make yourself a column in your scene planner that can take a few notes on the emotion you wish to create and the intensity you want to build it to. Another column for some word groups. Intensities will probably mirror the action, activity, conflict and character development stages you are using for your story arc. The emotional intensity can complement or counterbalance these plot and scenic points.

Be conscious of what emotion you are trying to draw from the reader, whether or not you think of your prose as a fundamentally emotional experience.  Know what emotion you need to bring out.  Start effects early. Imagery of warmth or coolness can, for example, give hints as to where readers’ sympathies might be drawn and can be subtly increased over large sections.

Challenge yourself and test as often as you dare

Keep testing on your own sensibilities – it’s likely to be too late by the time you get an audience.  Again, are all the possible elements being used to advantage? Would a Year 7 class have something to spot and work with? Has anything being overused? There’s only so much fog and rain to be used in reflecting low moods. Yes it works, but we need to be careful to adjust for everything that has gone beyond cliche into some awful postmodernist parody of itself. It’s one thing if readers don’t quite get the emotional force, but if they want to laugh when they should be crying then you’ve done your job badly.

Gladly wolde we learn and gladly teach*

So what did I learn from my conversation with disappointed young manuscript reader:

Firstly, something in the exchange reinforced for me the commitment to what it is to be a craftsperson. Consciousness of each element and patient dedication to perfecting it is vital, but at expert levels the consciousness transforms into something else, a flow of sorts, something that perpetuates through skilled decision making. It is to reach this master-state that we dedicate our apprenticeship in early career.

Secondly, there is never a craftsperson that can forget the basics. It may become largely subconscious but its still worth checking that everything is running smoothly. Never allow one element of the craft to escape while others are being developed. If cunning plot points are the current main aim don’t allow that to be at the expense of characterisation or style.

Thirdly, always test your material, be prepared to take criticism and realise that there’s always more to be learned and the learning can come in all sort of shapes and sizes.

What my son actually said was that school taught him that the best writers used not just a good trick or two here and there but every good method when it came to establishing and building the emotions on the page.

As he’d been doing in class, and as every reader knows, each word each element of style, each choice of word, each rebalance of sentence length, everything works towards an emotional connectivity and the real expert will use these to establish an emotional range that builds a journey and underpins a powerful premise. This is rhetoric.

It’s good to be reminded of how much goes into a marvellous novel or written story, all of which should be there in perfect proportion: meaningful ideas, believable characters, tight plot structures, pacy dialogue, primal values, subtle psychologies, delicate developments, recondite references, elegant phrasing, cunning vocab…

There is a lot to remember, so it’s not surprising that we occasionally let a few things slip. Don’t beat yourself up for errors or shortcomings. This is a craft that takes a lifetime of inching towards mastery, and it doesn’t hurt to go back sometimes to the basics.



* Motto of the Victorian Old Mortality club at Oxford 

How to write a novel (#3) – managing conflict

If you’re reading up on how to write, you’ll have been sieged, bombarded, pelted and shelled all in the name of conflict. It comes up in every “how to do” and you’ll be told and told to the point of haemorrhage itself that there’s no story without conflict – or at the very least there’s no interest without conflict, nothing to resolve and no tale to be told. Conflict it would seem is the first word in what narrative is. For one thing to progress to another with a chain of cause and effect is fine, but it’s not a story until there’s conflict, and if you’ve not got conflict then you’ve got nothing worth a reader’s while.

This is always another one of those sharp-suck-of-breath moments in the creative writing class. Conflict! What! You just try and make me deal with conflict! Cue demands for money back and what do universities think they’re playing at… how dare structures of violence be imposed on creative free-spirited souls et cetera…

So. When we say conflict we mean something subtle, perhaps. Something even the most gentle teller of super-subtle stories would deem suitable. Something that accounts for lonely youths patting their yellow wallpaper, or mountains built with peaceful citadel. Of course, when we start discussing conflict then we’re not necessarily talking blood-fest or suicidal angst.  There’s something quietly conflict-ridden about many of our lasting literary gems. Conflict takes many forms and, in the right hands, could be just a well observed process of choosing – that dilemma that craves unwelcome resolution.

Even so, it’s amazing how many scenes just seem to escape the first draft stage without any conflict at all – not because they’re subtle and cleverly unruffling but because they’re a dull chain of events that you’ve just put down on screen because you can type quickly enough and you wanted to take your beloved character for a walk. Recognise the tempatation?  My beloved-character needs to meet someone to love…so, well, they have to get ready…and I want to talk about how nice their shoe collection is… and then they can ponder for a bit about all the rejection they had back in a time that doesn’t really matter anymore because its all resolved… and then there’s the staring into space over a coffee at the independent on the corner that will be good to describe because I was in a coffee shop just the other day and its look and smell are still with me and should be with my reader for a bit ..  and… and ….   Hang on!  Beloved-character hasn’t been allowed off the lead yet and is already becoming tiresomely unchallenged.

If you’ve got a manuscript and you’re wondering where it’s flagging, check your scenes.  Go on, challenge yourself. Be tested. Dare to be found wanting. Do your scenes have a conflict and more importantly does that conflict develop in intensity?

If you’re just embarking on a story, then your conscious mind should be checking where the conflicts occur and make sure they keep stepping up and up.

If your current work’s a few drafts-old then check out each scene, who’s in confict? with whom? with what?   And then what kind of conflict, with what stakes and with what possible outcomes. 

So what is conflict for novelists?

Stories are largely about someone working through against a trouble of some sort or another even if that’s just a confusion as to why they’re sitting in a dustbin.

But a problem doesn’t necessarily mean conflict, does it?

A woman who is unsure what to buy her husband for his birthday has a problem but is not in conflict.  A woman who has to chose between a present for her lover or a present for her husband has a different kind of problem and one that is already more interesting. There are decisions with a range of outcomes in this situation and apart from the birthday there is an irreconcilable challenge for the protagonist’s principle affections. It is the irreconcilable nature of this that lies at the heart of our craving for conflict and its well managed and meaningful resolution.

So, this helps make us aware of what kind of conflict we’re dealing with as story writers. Our conflict may be quiet and may be wholly psychological, but it should suggest in the reader an incompatability between possible outcomes. The woman’s story above would not have meaningful conflict if she could afford a present for each of her loves and keep them both secret from each other. The solution has to imply problematic choice and one where something is necessarily relinquished – these are the stakes at the heart of meaningful conflict. If our plot’s conflict is a fight then it shouldn’t be a fight that could be walked away from, nor a friendly wrestle. It has to be a fight with potential for considerable loss.

There are some ground rules for the most satisfactory conflict too. Have you ever noticed how irritatingly pugnacious types – particularly in political spheres – will characterise their battles as one of beleaguered freedom fighters against a dangerously powerful foe? This tells us something about the appeal of certain kinds of myth-making and what an audience responds to.  Whether its Hamlet, Finding Nemo or the 1988 Cup Final, there’s a love of the underdog that we respond to in remarkable ways. Even if our hero is not actually characterised as underdog, we like the situation to be one that puts the odds heavily against them.

Not only that but if our plot’s conflict is a fight then the loss should be disproportionate to the gain. Risk of life for the lady’s kiss. Risk of permanent psychological destruction for the opportunity to challenge the authority figure to a game at chess. (BTW Re hero as underdog, check out Karl Iglesias who has three types of relationship of reader to protagonist depending on whether we see ourselves as equal, pitying or admiring – v v useful.)

As the marvellous Malcolm Gladwell writes: “much of what we consider valuable in our world arises out of these kinds of lopsided conflicts [David and Goliath] because the act of facing overwhelming odds produces greatness and beauty.” David and Goliath,  2013, p.6.

It should be easy. In your scenes, decide who wants what and who or what makes that goal incompatible with their own goals or existence. If what the character wants is necessary enough, with high enough stakes should they fail, then how they act in order to get it will allow interest to evolve in the reader together, hopefully, with the kind of greatness and beauty that the best stories abound in.

Can conflict be against fate or the facts, an endlessly mocked and hapless hero trying to get out of his dustbin – course it can, but where is this conflict going and how does it build? Only when his very frustration  (or his Mr Bean-esque ineptitude or his moral blindness) becomes an antagonising influence, only then do we start to feel that this is writerly conflict rather than a set of simple misfortunes. And, to repeat the lesson, there needs to be something to lose, something that’s irreconcilable with the success. The conflict isn’t just a person against fate, sympathy though we may have for his luckless plight. Satisfying conflict of a writerly kind has to have something else to engage us, something other than just an obstacle course of problems. Stories of this type tend to finish with some nod towards irony – the ladder that was in the corner all along – and maybe we feel the conflict is not the character against the environment but is a type of conflict that operates through the character, either as some kind of desperate gene that pits survival against annihilation, or as some cosmic battle between conflicting sides of human nature, the will to succeed pitted against the desire to relinquish all and go gently into that good night.

There are  successful stories where the conflict is not always easy to define. There are however very few successful stories with no succession of well-managed conflict.  We’ll leave aside those poetic descriptive tracts that can claim to be literature without ever actually being stories as such, but even great descriptive chunks, at their best, have their conflicts woven cleverly into the scene.

Yes, if you have major scenes without conflict (and there are good commentators who point to their being other kinds of scenes and breathing space required from the major turns so use your judgement of course – more on this in  a few paragraphs’ time, bear with me), if you have major scenes without conflict, do ask yourself who would get this far through your text and feel aggrieved if you took the book away.

I do understand the groans from the class of aspirant novelists though. For the novelist, there’s always a sense that things aren’t as straightforward as for screenwriters, and there’s always that lurking question of what else there is instead of wham! bam! conflict, or why does conflict have to be talked about this way when we’re trying to write literature or produce art.

Types of conflict in stories

So, can you articulate where the conflict is in your scene? Is the conflict perhaps hidden in the depth of the writing –  Conflict of perception –  Conflict of tone  – Conflict of imagery  – Conflict of senses – Conflict of ideas… the clever oxymoron or the devilish litotes.

Here’s some ways you might judge your conflict if, as many teachers and mentors would recommend, you are going through your scenes patiently checking for their readerly value.

Person v person:  This is an easy one to get right. What does each person want? Are the two things incompatible? How will each person deal with the need to get their way over the other?  Dig into the characters –  passive aggressive, cunning, ignorant, tenacious, devious, forthright or just plain aggressive – are they expressing the conflict openly or is it something the reader gets through the tension in the atmosphere – are they in conflict right now in the scene or is it something simmering – are  both characters conscious of the conflict, or just one of them, or neither of them, with just the reader’s knowledge allowing them to recognise what is about to explode (plenty of comedy uses this kind of conflict to great effect).

Person v self: Again, the consciousness the character themselves has can often make this type of conflict more interesting.  Engaging characters often have one goal they are conscious of, making their surface-level conflict a battle to get a clear something; what they really want however – love, power, peace – is something they’re unaware of, and, perhaps, the reader knows this all along, or gradually learns of this thing with them, or just ahead of them.

Person v inanimate objects: Sideshow Bob’s rakes spring to mind or something with Harold Lloyd… anyone lost in an environment alone – although this kind of conflict can be going on alongside other types with people involved. The trick is to make the thing become a character. If it looks as though the inanimate object is mysteriously trying to upset the main character, challenge them and defeat them, this will yield more for the reader than a simple tripping up over stuff.

Person v the ineffable: pride, appearances, destiny. If your character seems to be up against “IT” then maybe their conflict is just something in the ether. It could be psychological troubles, cosmic intervention, divine testing, self-ignorance, hubris, an inability to love or to commit. Often there’ll be something of this in a character arc anyway because this is what novels are particularly good at. But maybe you also have a scene-level conflict of person versus… something.  Rather than scratch your head wondering what your character is in conflict with at this moment (again, assuming you want to go patiently through scene by scene and ask yourself where the conflict lies) perhaps you look to what is preventing their peace of mind – if this is where the conflict lies then perhaps you have a chance to expand and heighten it.

And to close this section, it’s in this type of conflict, the person vs the ineffable, that you find that curiously passive protagonist that film-makers hate and novelists are usually much more patient with. Conflicts that are thrown at human beings for their patient withstanding, hapless heroes struggling to keep their dignity – there are many successful examples of the inactive protagonist, one who seems not to take arms against their seas of troubles. On the whole you’ll be recommended not to do this. Readers at heart want to see an active protagonist, one who is matching up to the conflict in a way that demonstrates their worthiness to be followed as the central character in a story.  Spare a thought though for other kinds of conflict. Again there are plenty of worthy literary examples where the reader’s pity for the character’s struggle against constant subjection to forces beyond their control is at the heart of the reading experience. 

Transition scenes in fiction

To go back momentarily to the idea, popular in a number of writers’ guides,  that there are different kind of scenes and only the major turns need to have conflict.  This method allows for a sort of trans-scenic downtime. Now, a cleverly paced book will have those quieter moments and it is these that give context to the major conflicts. Conflict scenes must rise, there must be a change in intensity or we risk anticlimactic dissapointment in the reader. Clever pacing might be mapped out as a steady hike up and drop back, each hillock and dip being slightly higher than the last, the hills gradually rising towards the mountains, a breather before the next climb and so on.

Be careful however that the troughs are just as well thought through as the peaks.

Your trans-scenic downtime isn’t then just an excuse to lie back with a foot off the pedal. There’s no cruise control in a well crafted piece of writing. If you’re going to deal with a scene between two points of major conflict, that transition still needs something to hold the reader’s attention. Often the transition scenes are an excuse to give something the reader hasn’t been made to want: backstory, musing, description, philosophical asides. Good books do have these things, but again, find some of the great examples and examine them closely. It’s likely that the characters aren’t actually in a limbo or a conflict-free happy land. It’s likely that there’s something waiting for them or some likelihood for problems. It’s more engaging to read a description of eating a plum if you know that its a stolen fruit from the icebox of a lover – it’s more engaging to read backstory that’s being forced out of someone who has yet to confront their own past.

As far as conflict goes, use it wisely and subtly, make it a conflict against self or the ineffable, make it a wholly psychological confrontation, just make sure it’s there. Or else.



How to write a novel (#5) – What is good writing?

Improvement. Like many would-be writers, I’ve been through a few periods where advice, information, tuition, critique were all doing their job well and I really felt that I was improving. Thrilling times. There’s no better feeling than a sense of rapid improvement at something you’re enjoying. That’s one reason why it’s such fun to be at an intermediate level – rapid improvement at something you’re beginning to get a grip on. But as you get better, it’s harder to improve. It’s not easy to be specific about exactly how we improve as writers, either, and I have to admit that I’ve also been through highly frustrating periods when not only do I appear to be getting no better at all, but I’m finding it increasingly hard to see where the next stage of betterment might come from.

One of my own most fruitful leaps came with the almost scientific approach to narrative form and three act drama. Lagos Egri, Rob McKee and Joseph Turner became my heroes and companions, and, helped by friends who were mastering film and screen writing, I came out at the other side of this journey with a new understanding of how much of this fascinating science should be balanced against other elements of fiction writing. The source of this particular pleasure in improvement  is interesting. It does come from a sense of the science, the hard factual foothold you get as you search for improvement. Can you write? Well, I know that x and y and z have to happen for a storyline to “work”. When you have this knowledge you can challenge your own writing, test it against principles, give it a bashing with the lump-hammer of  evidence-based plotting controls, and you can feel that you’ve got something that works, something that the critics will have to accept as “better” than your less rigorously-built pieces.

Science is reassuring but we can’t rely on such platforms in the arts. It reminds me of the episode the young Jude the Obscure goes through when he believes that his learning of Latin of Greek will come in some swift and secret trick that his new books will offer. Junior Jude gets an early taste of the miserable disappointments Hardy will drag him through, finding that there’s no quick fix, no single secret, and that learning the classics will take long labour, patient discovery, and a less than firm set of steps towards improvement. Improvement in the arts is more subtle, more nebulous, more troubled by a not-knowing. It requires leaps of faith, testing, probing and a following of hunches. It requires trust.

So when we look at our writing and wonder how “good” it is, what are we testing against? What’s the evidence that a piece has improved? That one piece is better than another?

Mysteriously, publishers are unable to be very useful in this.  Almost conspiratorially, the how-to-do-it books also struggle to be firm what good writing looks like. We know it needs to be clear and needs to have some flow of sense – this comes from all writing lessons from infant school onwards and is no great surprise. Beyond this though, what is good writing? Go on, ask a publisher or professional reader, scout or agent what they’re looking for in an MS submission.  I’ve heard a bunch of variations on the mightily vague “good”:  “It’s how the writing grabs you”, “it’s about a fresh voice”, “I look for a new approach”, “a good novel just hits you”, “the prose  sparkles”.


Now this isn’t very useful really, is it? Certainly it’s not presented as something that could be learnt or taught. This seems more like the stuff of miracles, of “inspiration” (talent that is breathed mysteriously into a being), or of sheer bloody good fortune. Maybe it’s a bit like rearranging furniture: you just need a willing husband to hump sofas round the space for a day or three until the ideal arrangement falls before the eye. At some point you’ll know the arragement is “good”, “suitable”, “nice”, or plainly “a good fit”.

As those who’ve tried designing anything will tell you, whether it’s circuit boards, cathedrals or the daffodil beds, there’s a difference between just hit and miss arrangements and a real consciousness of what works. It’s a difference of professionalism. Good design begins with good principles. Of course, we all know “good” design when we see it. The professional can do it again and again though, with variations and with very few misses compared to hits. That’s not to say there isn’t space for testing and trialling and feeling for what works, just that this needs to be done with a thorough knowledge of all the parameters and possibilities.

So whadawelearn wiseass?

I don’t think that just reading books is the answer, although this tends to be the favourite piece of advice from the inner sanctum of the publishing and the published. Further belief in the serendipity cum inspiration cum let-it-all-flow style of creative practice. Fine. You can have fun this way. But what if you want to move on? What is it that makes writing good? Good for whom? Good for what purpose?

Apart from the science of narrative structure, on which there are plenty of good books from Aristotle to Blake Snyder with wise words as to what makes a good (aka well-structured) story, there’s also Rhetoric,  another topic with some sense of a knowledge base and a set of defined techniques that can improve your craft. Again, our Classical forefathers had sets of codes, sets of known effective patterns, and whether you’re using repetition or contrast or open-questioning there’s a set of marvellously detailed Renaissance rules aimed at Elizabethan poets, the majority of which will add a formal spice to your prose or poetry. There’s also a whole lexicon of arcane dictionary terms to impress your friends with and after a bit of study you can  spot a litotes and a zeugma on the darkest night. It remains unpopular as a formally taught discipline, though, and the ways into persuasive writing tend to be more through feeling than design these days, despite some well-known tricks around tri-fold repetition “Education, Education, Education” and so on that still fill the speechwriters’ packet of tools.

How do we find good writing then? How do we get writing of the brilliance that General Woolfe saw in  Grey’s Elegy in a Country Churchyard, about which he apparently said that he would rather have written those verses than successfully take Quebec… that’s a hell of  good bit of writing, isn’t it? Can you imagine Norman Schwartzkopf saying he’d rather have written Simon Armitage’s ‘Harmonium’ than smash the Gulf?

Let’s start smaller. Maybe start with a hunt through your favourite six pages from a range of novels. Read them carefully, then read again. Why do they grab you – as pages rather than as stories or characters? What have they done? What will you need to do to match them?

I’ve tried this myself. And I’ve listened to tutors and publishers and authors. Below are a few of my own ponderings as to how we might track down an answer to what “good writing” is, by which I mean writing that is satisfying for readers. It’s not comprehensive, and may not even be what you want good to mean, but for the moment it’s something to be getting on with. I’ll make a couple of simple divisions:

  1. Good writing at a word and sentence level
  2. Good writing at a content level

Of course these need to work together for a truly “good” piece of writing to emerge. I’ve also got a couple of extra ones to save till later.

Good writing at a word and sentence level

The music of the English language

When I was learning to teach English, a lecturer pointed out that some of those languages which we as English speakers believe to be musical are not in fact as musical as English itself. Some for example are more rhythmic. Italian is a fine example, with a dactyl stress you can march troops to. What English speakers often fail to be conscious of is the wondrous musicality of the English sentence (and this rangy intonation proves highly problematic for those who are trying to learn English and failing to stress at a sentence level can make intermediate English speakers sound abrupt, rude or just bad.)

English is a musical language. The arc of an English sentence builds with the same shape as a finely worked piano etude, rising towards the end and with a dying fall to the perfect strain. Set a long sentence against short ones, add clauses to clauses until they seem to be at the end of a breath – to listen to English being well-spoken is to enjoy an immense tonal range and a splendorous rise and fall that  mirrors the narrative arc itself. Add to this the flexibility of English tone, the ways in which it has been remodelled to suit sub-cultures the world over, and how this remodelling has come back with its own set of over- and under-tones to the standards. One thing you know when you’ve got good writing in your hands is that it fits the music inherent in English. I read the stories in a penguin anthology of Russian shorts not too long ago and Oh, the revelation when the last one was a translation by Nabokov himself from his own early work (presumably with plenty of licence).  Compared to the hollow thud of a standard translation into English, to have a glimpse of good writing but through another language, this was an astonishing experience.

Do your sentences read with a rise and fall to die for? Some people can produce this music with what seems a minimum sweat, but of course its a sense of music that has come through years of listening. Train your ears, write pastiches and parodies, copy the masters – these are the traditional routes to learning the musicality of fine sentences. If the music’s there then whatever your content and structure, you’ll be onto something.

Here’s a favourite sentence  of sheer loveliness from Stephen Fry’s The Liar (Heinemann 1991), and although the theme and the echoes of Richard II and the compellingly wistful portrait help here, I think you can replace the English words with corresponding non-linguistic sounds and still hear the beauty of a masterly composer of words:

This fantasy of England that old men took with them to their death-beds, this England without factories and sewers or council houses, this England of leather and wood and flannel, this England circumscribed by a white boundary and laws that said that each team shall field eleven men and each man shall bat, this England of shooting-sticks, weather-vanes and rectory teas, it was like Cartwrights’ beauty, he thought, a momentary vision glimpsed for a second in an adolescent dream, then dispersed like steam in to the real atmosphere of traffic-jams, serial murderers, prime ministers and Soho rent.

The Liar, Ch.9.,Pt.3

I love the second that in “laws that said that” and the rhyme of dream and steam,  the vowel progressions in the lists /or/ /ew/ /ou/. Super, fluffy and completely darlingie. Make sure this is on your reading list – this sentence is followed by one more to round to the paragraph’s end where the vision becomes the only reality and leaves its “image, scents and textures bottled and laid down against the long, lonely melancholy of adulthood.”

Now I, for one, would rather have written that sentence than be taken roughly in Quebec.

The right words

The basic principle seems to be to use as few words as possible, use them in ways that will be readily understood, but use them in ways that are eye-catching and maybe even breath-catching.

Conciseness is usually considered the best attribute of a marvellous writer. Accounts of the need to crop and cut and refine and hone are legend and of course this is a favourite part for most writers. Much nicer as a hobby to go back in and do some tweaking rather than stare at the blank page and wonder where the filling will come from. Perhaps this is what Wilde was enjoying when he famously noted on a proofing quest, “This morning I took out a comma and this afternoon I put it back in again.”

Repeating yourself is therefore a complete no-no. It starts to remind us of those real conversations we have with friends or at home – or even in university colloquies – where the same thing is said again and again in cycles as though a problem is best dealt with if we can keep it in the front of us, and, who knows, perhaps that’s true. In writing, however, you can keep going back to the bits you want to read again so having something repeated by the writer is generally considered bad form. Don’t say the same thing twice, unless it’s clearly being used for emphasis. Don’t reuse a word too quickly (unless it’s a conscious stylistic device). Don’t over-use your favourites. Also, don’t repeat yourself.

There’s something about “le mot juste” that is essential to the “harmonious sentences” that Flaubert treasured. Readers appreciate a well chosen word. Favourite writers may even have use for an occasional word we don’t know, but will use it in a way that we feel its a new friend rather than an attempt to make us look ignorant. Beware overly arcane vocabulary – beware trying to use the vocabulary of sub-cultures unless you really know what you’re talking about. Use words in slightly unusual ways but which make complete sense in context – oxymorons and that quirky paradox of a phrase like “darkness visible” for example. Add an adjective to a noun it might not readily be associated with – colours with sounds, visuals with touches. Seek out the anti-cliche, something that sounds so neat it ought to exist already but doesn’t.

Get playing. Make lists, fill books.

Avoiding cliche is also highly  recommended as the first, basic job of a writer. Not just avoiding it but smashing it into irresolvable pieces and rendering it unusable. There’s a cute trick around defying cliche but managing at the same time to demonstrate how you’ve smashed it. Homilies can be subverted with new endings or  a tired metaphor can earn some new jazz. “I have nothing to declare but my genius” and so on.

Words, sentences paragraphs. Make them suitably neat, clear, error-free, with a music that feels unlike either the standard and acceptable tone, nor too much like a well known style.

If that’s asking too much then keep it simple and make the words neatly functional so that no-one trips over them.


Good writing at a content level

Bridging the gaps

Remember The English Patient (film) and the way the aeroplane at the beginning only makes sense once you get to the end of the film. Remember the beginning of Lolita? No, not the Lo-Lee-Ta bit, I’m thinking about the crafted Preface in which we learn about the destiny of Mrs Richard F Schiller, another beginning that only makes sense once you’ve reached the end and a bit of the book some readers never get.

Both of these pack their punch because of that love of the long gap, the way some seed retained in the memory suddenly flowers. Is this simply the smug bit of the brain being proud to have worked it all out? Or is there some electrical impulse that fires  pleasure across the dormant memory cell? Whatever the cause, it’s well known that gap filling is one great thrill for readers. The bigger the gaps the more sophisticated – the more literary – the work.

Gaps. Not saying too much. That’s seems to be one clue around so called good writing.  Hyper-detailed factual blow by blow narrative is usually not thought to be good… and the risk of unnecessary detail is high. It’s an easy trap to fall into if your technique is to write largely by imagining or remembering a scene and then adding what you see into the mix. Elements should be chosen because they bring out conflict or shape something, not because they’ve popped into your head.

There are a wealth of different kinds of gaps. There are those Lolita moments – hints that many will never notice. There are those that complete the story or offer a twist, a retrospective revision of everything we have experienced, the end of Corrimer’s I am the Cheese, Christie’s Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  There are those that are neater, compacted into a chapter perhaps, scenes which start you in an unfamiliar environment and then take you backwards in time to explain, or forwards in time, with the initial befuddlement becoming understood through the growing context.  A gender that isn’t initially clear, the work you have to put in to guess at what relationship characters have, or how old they are. The identity of the narrator as in Nesbitt’s Treasure Seekers. Get us a bit disorientated, makes us work for the meaning. The popularity of Pulp Fiction was not only in its snappy dialogue and loveable criminals, it was also in the diegesis, the narrative that leapt across the times of the story and kept hitting you with familiar characters in different clothes or with a new knowledge-base. The more this needs piecing together the better for a sophisticated reader. In this way some of the gap filling becomes like a reward, you puzzle things out and then after a well judged inverval, a clearer clue is given.

Basically if you can make someone’s brain work over for a few seconds before they work something out, then that’s a short cut to good. My favourite of Graham Rawle’s masterful Lost Consonants was always a picture of Andrew Lloyd Webber at the piano and underneath “Andrew Lloyd Webber writes another hit musical”… have you got it yet?  – When you do, that’s the gap that is working.

Avoiding the commonplace

It’s easy to emerge from literature studies with the idea that good writing can never show activity. Books that have “action” are to be shunned by those whose recognition of good writing has come from a sound education. Activity without action, without meaningful plot action, is worse. It’s tempting then to look at a few pages where characters are in motion and think they can’t possibly be good.

?? But our screenplay experts fill books with the importance of quality suggestive motion and gesture. Can good writing only be thoughts, reflections and philosophies. Or could it be good and give a description of the race-about world.

Part of the answer to that may lie in an understanding of what is commonplace activity and what is uncommon. What the activity does in order to engage you.

One of the functions of  gaps is its sidestepping of what is commonplace, what is inherently dull. It is very easy to launch into a description about something that has interested you – much harder to find what’s of interest to others. The commonplace is boring even if it’s hectic. We know that already. Good writing helps us see something we don’t know or a refreshing new angle on something we thought we knew.   I’m grateful to Francine Prose’s Reading Like A Writer for reminding me of this quote from Chekhov:

Commonplaces such as “the setting sun bathed the waves of the darkening sea, poured its purple gold, etc.” – such commonplaces one ought to abandon…. one ought to seize upon the little particulars, grouping them in such a way that, in reading, when you shut your eyes you get the picture.

This comes in one of the best sections of Prose’s book, and she goes on with further statements that lead towards this sense that the avoidance of the commonplace (as with the avoidance of the cliche) is what good writing has as its primary trait

Mediocre writing abounds with physical cliches and stock gestures… not descriptions of an individual’s very particular response to a particular event, but rather a shorthand for common psychic states. Francine Prose, Reading Like A Writer, 2006, p.210

She goes on to describe writing that is perhaps familiar to many, whereby actions are placed in the middle of conversations, simply to avoid the reader’s rushing through them. In such ways come the weighty pauses and the cigarettes and the turning and staring back out to sea where the settling sun bathes the purple gold of the waves….

Spinning the yarn

While no one wants the same thing repeated, everyone wants more writing, that’s why they read. Some of the greatest pleasures from a passage of writing come when the author spins a conceit for miles, talks lyrically and expansively on something that could have been dismissed in a single word. It’s especially effective if this is counteracted by its opposite, something major that is reduced to single words.

Witness the marvellous description of Tom Jones’s beating from Thwackum and Blifil:

… he dexterously drove down the fist of Jones, so that it reached only his belly, where two pounds of beef and as many of pudding were then deposited, and whence consequently no hollow sound could proceed. … And now both together attacked our heroe, whose blows did not retain that force with which they had fallen at first, so weakened was he by his combat with Thwackum; for though the pedagogue chose rather to play solos on the human instrument, and had been lately used to those only, yet he still retained enough of his antient knowledge to perform his part very well in a duet.

The History of Tom Jones, A foundling, Bk.5, Ch.11.

Goodies to unpack

What we are looking for in good writing is the sense that there are goodies here to be unpacked. Goodies that take a brief moment to apprehend and, ideally, further goodies that reward a patient and close reading. Making your writing look like such goodies exist there – but without it becoming so dense that no-one wants to bother – this is where the goodness lies.

This leads to that popular and useful creative writing course exercise:  describe a barn/chair/pencil from the point of view of a grief-stricken character without referencing the grief itself. If you haven’t done that one before it’s a very good warmer.

When well-done, this sort of exercise gives students practice in what to say and what not to say. It helps a writer understand how to make the reader burrow in amidst the words in order to look around and, from new perspectives, to make a meaning for themselves.


Finally some thoughts on how what you choose to write about can be good.

Human nature is at the heart of any story, so it follows that any story can be a good one. However there’s a certain kind of prize given to a certain kind of book and this regularly gets tagged with the label “good.” We’re talking Man Booker good or Orange good. It’s a bit different from other kinds of good, but we know what to expect and when it’s good it’s very good. This isn’t just worthiness, the charitable cause or some universally understood testament to the plight of human misery – although that all helps too. Make sure, if you’re trying to impress, that you’ve got the right themes for the right audiences. Make sure they can trust you.

We want to trust our writers. We also want to spend our time well. Ideally the time spent reading book x will result in: A) something to talk about after having read it; B) a few little gems, facts or alternative slants on subject matter. If your page leaves people feeling they’ve gained knowledge, or had knowledge affirmed, this is a quick passport to ‘good’ writing.

Clever humour. That’s another way to be good. Not too much of course, that would make it either silly or daft or kiddish or jokey or tiresome. No, you need that droll half-gag that raises a slight curves at the mouth of the most imperturbable barrister. Something about farts or willies probably. No but seriously, that serious slant on humour does get you called good in the right circles. Literary types just love to show how they understand true comedy, Swift, Kundera, Rushdie, Amis, Winterson, all comedians at heart, but deliverers of that wry and irreverent snook-cock that could never be mistaken for anything but goodness.

And, as a final final pointer, don’t forget the meta- para- meta-meta supra-textual world, one replete with goodness, cleverness and super-humourousness. A good text is often in some way about text. This can be boldly symbolic – books’ graveyards, text blankets etc – or can be more subtly evocative of how or why books are written, words deployed and phrases ingested. It includes all sorts of techniques of writerly revelation and what can be very tedious, self-conscious references to one’s self as fictionaliser. Nevertheless, build this in subtly and it will amuse and delight everyone at parties with an English degree and a bent for modernism.

Good writing at an achievement level

There are other things that just have to be in place. You need good, clear writing structure – and I’m not so much thinking about plotting and narrative structure here, heroes’ journey and the turn of the second act – I’m thinking more about the elements that just lead us forward and make us want to read. What have you done to make your writing clear, what have you done to flag up the direction and what have you done to engage the reader? This tends to be the lessons in the earliest days of writing, but don’t let that stop you from keeping the good work up. Basic techniques of flagging the theme of a paragraph, moving through explanation and detail and leaving a thread to carry into the next paragraph. There needs to be the throat grabbing opener, and every paragraph needs to have something that makes it worth reading. Unlike readerless blog writers, novel writers can’t afford to let a dull paragraph escape into the final draft. Keep it up. Make them all useful. Make them all engaging. Make them all achieve.

Of course good writing has a simple definition and one that excuses all manner of vagueness when it comes to stating what “good writing” really is. Good writing must work on the reader, must achieve what it aims to do, and as all readers are different, this can be a tricky task:

Good writing must engage its readers intellectually and emotionally.

Some works fail to do both of these, or are at best a horrible imbalance. Whichever of the two extremes you end up with, a blubbery mess of pap or a dry, rigid treatise, neither is good writing. One of the things writing does for us is to bring together the ways we react intellectually and emotionally to people, problems, effects, causes and situations. For the entertainers and fictionists, it’s only good writing if you’ve done this.


Tips for Writers – make a check list for your own good writing

Make your own, it’s the only way to learn. But here are a few examples to get going with:

  • Have I removed all cliche – two or more words that are commonly placed together but needn’t be, especially if there is a metaphorical intent. Good as gold, piercing stare etc.
  • Do I appear in control of my language – no words you can’t quite use or edits that don’t quite hang together
  • Have my statements been ordered to produce a clear sense of sequence, direction without inappropriate looping back. Have I removed any ideas that fork into two suggested threads, only one of which we can deal with immediately.
  • Do my phrases have a musical cadence to them.
  • Is there some disorientation to motivate the reader – a satisfying where am I, what’s going on?
  • Has each paragraph elicited bemusement, curiosity, wonder.
  • Do all my gestures and words show some character trait that is not overtly described.
  • Is there a memorable phrase, succinct idea or compelling character?

Sport and narrative: living through 2013/14 as a Liverpool fan

An old wise-woman, questioned at the gate to the ancient olive grove on the route to Olympia, is thought to have said that a life well-lived needs three things: self-worth, the knowledge that we are loved, and the potential to crap on our opponents at sport.

And it’s the need for sport, particularly the need to support sport, that makes me wonder how much of sport is the same set of interests as that of story… particularly this football season when I’ve personally gone through a narrative arc of chunderous highs and lows, cliff hangers, hope-against-hopes and oh-so-nearlys.

Sport takes many forms – and bear in mind that ‘sport’ here is about the aims and activities of conquest and conflict rather than its more participatory, health-inducing meanings or its balletic, dispassionate grace.  We seek, in all kinds of places, domination as an ending and the fulfilment we hope it will bring. Catch the competitive mums at drop-off and there’s competition masquerading as everything from art to chit-chat to good-parenting – the sport of oneupmanship – so which little girl is reading the fattest book and which little boy took the class teddy to Fiji? Down the pub for a quiet drink and there’s everything from who’s got the poshest watch to who’s had the best weekend… and of course whose team has won. At the heart of this is a competition over who’s having the best experience, who’s having an enviable high. In other words, whose individual narrative has been the best to live through.

Oh, yes we are narrative and the narrative journey needs its sport. We lust for narrative that puts ourselves in the role of protagonist (whether active or simply suffering the slings and arrows); we lust for that sense of an arc that takes us towards satisfactory ends; and of course, with wonderful Peter Brook-style psychology, we both hunger for the ending and ache to delay it, trading the demise and the reslolution into nothingness against the active time-thread that keeps us going, keeps us wanting and keeps us hoping for the end.

Any narrative needs its twists.  We need our high, high stakes: we need to imagine the best possible ending and we need to know that it’s  both essential and that  failure will be agonising. We need have our hopes raised then snatched away.We need the heroes and the villains. We need the adrenaline of love and hate. We need to associate ourselves with our representatives within the story and disassociate ourselves from the centre of evil.

Narrative is one of the ways we best combine emotion with intellect. While there are different balances between these two depending on taste, when fully satisfied, narrative allows our thoughts and feelings to work in harmony.

Life itself is undertaken as narrative and  we have our strongest experiences by creating threads of narrative sense from the tumbling rubberband ball of chaos.

At its best sport provides this. We know it can and those who follow a football team through a season are embarking on an embedded narrative, embedded within the wider scope of their fandom.

Of course when we pay for narrative, when we cough up for our books and ebooks and cinema tickets and Playstation games and TV licences, we expect to be teased, tantalised and rewarded without it ever being obvious that the entertainment has been designed to do this.

When we follow sport we hope we’ll get this, but the knowledge that we largely don’t is part of the fun (and part of the perversity as Nick Hornby says at length in Fever Pitch).

So, Liverpool Football Club 2013/14

Oh what a season. Especially for the world weary fans who’ve been there for 24 years without a first division win; especially for those who’ve suffered the Red Devils menacing the upper echelons for most of those years, especially for those who were crushed by the oh-so-close-but-no-cup in 2008 and 2002, especially for those who remember the good-old-days, those who have told their own tales to their children of when we had Stevie Highway on the wing.

For me it goes back to 76 with a fondness for Kevin Keegan and then 77 and the signing of Dalglish and the TV showing, as one of its very few live games, a European Cup win that I stayed up late for and saw as suitably heroic. Add to that the playground and being in with those celebrating the victory, collecting the Panini stickers and putting stars around the margins of the Liverpool FC page while drawing beards and glasses on the Man U team . Suddenly the football isn’t just TV and isn’t just the stadium, it’s part of what makes you happy and makes you liked and gives you conversation.

Sport embeds itself. It’s not just the team doing its stuff and us tagging along. It’s part of the fan’s own life-narrative and the narrative potential is enormous with opportunities for both ecstasy and agony.  As far as watching these heroes on TV as a six or seven year old, was I even conscious that they had their own reality elsewhere? I took my six year-old to Anfield this year and he didn’t seem to quite understand that these people he’d been watching on TV and whose posters were on his wall – of course I’ve shamelessly indoctrinated both my sons – these were the real people standing down there, yes, that’s the real Steven Gerrard, the Real Louis Suarez.  For an imaginative, TV-watching child maybe the football on the box was seen in the same way as the drama – probably made up and possibly even created through CGI. Their importance is not in themselves as such, it is in the rewards they give us through the narrative possibility.

And now we wait for the season to go through its final twists. Liverpool were behind then they were ahead. Then it was all thrown away on a slip that was mercilessly mocked by Man U and Man City and Chelsea fans and now…. now we sing about the golden light at the end of the storm and we wait.

Liverpool FC the backstory and setting for 2013/14

The LFC backstory for the 2013 season has its own tangles. The team could be a cast to suit Kurasawa. In Suarez there’s the vilified anti-hero made good; in Gerrard there’s the old stalwart leading the team as the opportunity to live the dream of a Premiership gradually dwindles and retirement approaches. In Mignolet there’s the new keeper following from an old favourite. Sterling is the young buck playing his part, Tore the clownish geriatric who maybe shouldn’t have been in the pose to begin with.

There’s the fact that Liverpool were the team of the 80s and then seemed to lose their touch. The despised win-everything outfit who suddenly dropped to second fiddle, eventually playing more of the gutsy under-dog role in games throughout the 2004/5 Champions’ Leauge and winning more fond respect for trying than awe-struck loathing for their winning streaks.

Three or four very, very poor seasons, since 2008. Changes of manager and the very real sense that another season in 7th will mean an exodus of those heavyweights who can save the squad. For a while we teetered on the brink, expecting to lose the only man who was scoring and to fail to attract any new blood of any quality. One more step towards the brink and we’re the new Leeds, bombing down the division and maybe even slipping to the one below. It’s a real possibility as Hornby points out too – look at Wolves fans who, when Fever Pitch came out in 1991 as the authors example of a club who’d won loads for a while then nothing for thirty years… well now it’s fifty years and Wolves still haven’t pulled it back.

Everything is set for drama and when new hero Sturridge was scoring and taking Liverpool to an early topping of the Prem, Suarez was still banned from playing and only just reconsidering a stay at the club. Some very deep breaths in the early months and a few pundits wondering how the two would play together.

So the narrative elements are all there. Underdogs, inner conflicts and trouble among the stalwarts. High stakes – Gerrard has said he wants the Premiership title more than anything and his time is running out. A sudden surge of hope with early lead and suitable jockying until Christmas. Still top and then the super villans – rich, rich clubs and ( in Premierleague football terms at least) Liverpool can even adopt the image of impoverished D’Artagnons cocking a snook at the corrupt and  wealthy blues as they do battle. And as every reader knows, the impoverished underdog always has the moral appeal and our support in the face of the wealthy and the powerful.

Towards the end

They couldn’t have wanted more from the drama. Liverpool vs Man City – both needing only to win their remaining matches. A draw lets Chelsea in. Two nil up, then two-two… remember the Swansea game when we needed the winner in the last 15 minutes at 3-3, remember hanging on with the nose in front against Sunderland and West Ham… remember scraping the winner against Fulham – then suddenly it’s a 3-2 winner and all looks good… only to have it wrenched away at home to Chelsea when the cloven-hoofed Portugese beats his chest and renegade angel Fernando Torres chases down the pitch subtly allowing someone else to complete the dirty work – and all for a single slip, Gerrard missing his touch on the ball, then missing his footing… Oh woe and surely it’s been thrown away in the most sickening set of circumstances. Or is it just that this is perfect narrative, if we’d won then it would be all over and there would be none of that last minute just-in-time jubilation that Nick Horby felt in 1989 at the expense of Liverpool fans around the globe. (He writes wonderfully about this moment being the best any life could have been offered, suddenness, community-elation, never to be repeated etc all make it better than sex.)

But back to the Liverpool season, there’s then  the most dismal sacrifice of a three goal lead at Crystal Palace with fifteen minutes to go. How did that happen unless the narrative destiny wanted to tease us to the very end. There was a chance for Villa to help about but no… and then it comes down to the last game of the season and there’s still a chance. As an extra twist to the narrative as we want it, West Ham, Man City’s opponents for the last day have a bunch of ex-LFC players. Surely this is part of some great narrative destiny, part heroism, part grotesque destiny, a twist which shows that powerful super-managers have had it all in their sights for years. Of course that’s why Andy Carroll was the most expensive dud player in the universe, a depreciation of 30m on his fees etc. It was all part of a master plan that looked to plant him in the West Ham team ready to score the winner in that game… you can almost see him ripping off his Hammers shirt to reveal the liverbird beneath… a cross from Downing, Joe Cole heads forward and…

…and then it doesn’t happen and instead of the narrative unfolding into that sweet ending as it obviously would have done if I’d been allowed to write it instead of watching sport and chance and combat take their course, instead we have a flat end a woeful interview or two, positives to take away and – what every fan both says and hates to hear – we’d have been very happy with second at the beginning of the year.

This is where sport has to let us down, narrative-wise. Only very, very occasionally does the narrative work out and we feel the full satisfaction of the scripted, planned well-crafted story. Istanbul was like that in 2005 and now there’s a special room at the club museum where you can go and get a powerful filmic reminder that brings back the whole thing, the dip of the hero’s near-death experience, the seizing of the sword and the conquering of an enemy that had spent their column in La Gazetta boasting they’d crush us…

No, usually there’s something flat, disappointing, deflating, something unpelasant. We don’t have endings such as narratives would give us in fiction. There’s very few successful stories have a damp squib, oh-well-so-what ending. If there’s tragedy its grim, catastrophic and brings about both permanent change and an awaking of prime values in the audience. There’s no tragic flaw. What could it possibly be… we came second because of hubris or avarice or parsimony or false idols. No. There’s no reason save not being quite good enough where it mattered. And we think back, West Brom,  Southampton at home, Hull away, Cardiff away… and all we can do is hope for the transfer season and for August to come round again with optimism.

So why? Why the wrong ending? And this is where the harsh reality of sport engineers its own sense of what narrative is and how it interplays with expectation and desire. Red Smith wrote in the New York Herald Tribune on the occasion of the national sharing by radio of what seemed the ultimate last moment winning hit of the baseball season:

Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again. [4 October 1951]

And that’s when it did all come together in an amazing shared moment, triumph and disaster shared. The perfection has brought self-annihilation. We almost fail to deserve the “right” ending. This is not scripted and has to reflect our failings in the real world. We are left looking back on those moments of slight chance, Gerrard letting a pass slip under his foot for the first time anyone can remember… it falling to Chelsea, his scrabble to regain it, his slip… The premiership hung for a moment, it seemed, on that tiny event. We are powerless. We are swallowed by fate. Narrative, in the way that it is belief and a sense of justice, direction and deserving, narrative itself seems to fail us.



MJ Wilson is author of prize-winning short story “Almost Steven Gerrard”. Read ‘Almost Steven Gerrard’ online

Algernon Charles Swinburne born 5 April 1837

5th April is Swinburne day – if you think you may have read some once and liked it, today’s the day to go and look him up again.

New to Swinburne or wondering what he might offer? Today you can get a quick blast through 140 character or less snippets from the 6 volume Poems. If you like the musical highlights, check out the rest, all available thanks to the marvellous Swinburne project, Indianna, courtesy of John A Walsh. (Not sure if they often have the server crash through Swinburne-fever, but you never know.) If I get chance I’ll add some links to favourites.


More on A.C.Swinburne

Joyce was happy for characters to recommend old Algie and to reference the “great sweet mother”, yet Swinburne wasn’t to Eliot’s taste; what Eliot said was gospel in 1922 and so the twentieth century largely passed him by. Going from the rebel yells of the 1860s to the quietly introspective verse of the 1880s and 90s, Swinburne lived into the twentieth century, at which point, dying in 1909, he was pilloried by Eliot and others largely as a figurehead of the old world and old literary values. Those who don’t like him will usually put forward some variation on the “more sound than significance” theme, once hinted at by Tennyson, “a reed through which all things blow into music”.

Nevertheless, in a career that spanned the last half of the nineteenth century, Swinburne came up with plenty of cracking lines, often bringing a mournful elegiac quality in alongside a dollop of frumpy bitterness and long, long sentences.

Time turns the old days to derision,

Our loves into corpses or wives;

And marriage and death and division

Make barren our lives… [The Triumph of Time, 1866]

He never married and the speculations around his love life give a picture of awkward unrequited and idealistic thoughts. From a comfortably aristocratic position he was able to cock a snook at many aspects of the Victorian status quo including its religion, sexual mores and politics. If you’re up for verse that’s lengthy and voluptous,  Love, Time, The Sea, Maternity, Liberty, Loss and Spirituality all abound for in the works of Algie.

The most commonly anthologised and therefore most commonly read poems tend to be from the 1866 Poems and Ballads, a volume with plenty of variety and very much part of the rebel cry period. If you read nothing else there’s The Triumph of Time, Dolores, Anactoria, Hymn to Proserpine and this will probably keep you in with most people who’ve heard of him at all and even get you through an odd Victorian lit seminar. From the same volume, a favourite of mine is A Leave Taking. Other goodies from the volume include Hermaphroditus and Felise.

A daring leap will take you into the mid and later works.  Some of Swinburne’s deep spirituality comes through in  Hertha, some of his personal commitment to a quest in Prelude, both from 1871 and Songs Before Sunrise. On the Downs points forward to later works and the spiritual landscape poetry. If you can stomach the political poetry there’s Eve of Revolution and A New Year’s Message from the same volume, but as has been pointed out several times, it’s hard to see real political thinking in the poet and these works point to other stronger interests.

For some the later works offer more depth and a solemn contemplative atmosphere full of description and lyricism. His next Poems and Ballads included A Forsaken Garden, Ave Atque Vale, At a Month’s End and a rather complicated Sestina.

Most critics ignore the baby poems but there’s something very affecting about Swinburne’s view of children. Don’t miss In a Rosary,  and there are others A Clasp of Hands, Not a Child, A Baby’s Death and First Footsteps 

There’s a bunch of good elegies around the late period: The Death of Richard Wagner, On the Death of Richard Burton, Threnody.  And two longer poems that are firmly in the late great works, A Nympholept and The Lake of Gaube. There’s a number of longer works that play on the relationship of man to landscapes internal and external into the frame, among them By the North Sea.

Tim Burnett’s brilliant analysis of the Anactoria MS proved (hopefully once and for all) that Swinburne didn’t just waffle on meaninglessly but in fact was a craftsman. It takes a bit of time and patience – this is largely the opposite of the lightening-drive, get it in three words, cool hot yours world we inhabit. If you’re prepared to go with it, though, there’s a subtle but focussed meaning in these works often delivered through interplay of opposites and a careful treading of boundaries.

He was well known for bashing Christianity of course “Glory to Man in the Highest…” etc, but one of his prime motivations and best uses of his technique with opposites and  boundaries was an exploration of the spiritual. Ahead of an article I’m (finally) about to hawk round the Victorian journals, here are a few thoughts on this most spiritual of poets.

`Mr Swinburne apparently believes in a God, for he makes use of his name with unnecessary frequency…He seems to have some idea of a heaven; but he tells us in plain language, and in several places, that it is a poor place compared with a courtesan’s caresses.’ Anonymous review of Poems and Ballads (First Series).  London Review  4 August 1866, pp.130-1.

The common critical opinion of the poet as an over-zealous, unsubtle and irreligious rebel is well summed up by Robert Buchanan in his parody `The Session of the Poets’ where the caricatured Swinburne squeals:

All Virtue is bosh!

Hallelujah for Landor!

I disbelieve wholly in everything! – There!’[1]

Despite this opinion, the issue of morality remained far from clear.  Henry Morley on 22 September questioned the nature of criticism that `a book thus dealing with the desire of the flesh should have been denounced as profligate because it does not paint the outside of the Sodom’s Apple of like colour with the ashes that it shows within.’[2]  This prompted a footnote in William Michael Rossetti’s Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads:  A Criticism (1866) recognising the change in public opinion, and it is from Rossetti, with whom Swinburne maintained a long lasting correspondence and friendship, that we obtain the first clearest guidance as to Swinburne’s positive `spiritual’ ideology:

Mr. Swinburne, as we have said, is, in intellectual sympathy and culture, a pagan.  This gives a positive direction to his thought on religious subjects, which otherwise seems to account to little beyond negation, – materialism, and the absence of faith in a beneficent Providence.[3]

Expressing his developing thought through the categories of Man, Nature and Love, Swinburne’s poetry is a constant attempt to find a metaphysical harmony in life.  The poems collected in Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), provided impetus for this spiritual development, recognising the need for an alternative to the Christian interpretation of moral and spiritual values.  In that volume were the seeds of the spiritual world he was later to create more fully.  In the religious ideas of Poems and Ballads, First Series, Swinburne turned with violence against Victorian notions of religious benevolence.  This provided the initial separation from accepted codes of spiritual expression, and indicated the direction which the poet was to take.

The key to these is the individual’s receptivity to the passionate encounter, and Swinburne’s ideas of the spiritual are not the Theistic praise of an exterior creative force, but rather the mutual communion between the individual and the other elements of the Universal whole.  To this end Swinburne’s poetry moves between a sense of the individual and a projection of the Universal.  Songs Before Sunrise (1871), a volume which McGann finds `on fire with religious passion’, began to organise the specific alternatives which Swinburne was trying to define.[4]  Here the sinister Romantic elements of Swinburne’s poetry are formed into a more philosophical account of the relation of Man to a spiritual entity.  The nature of liberty is transposed into the system of sacraments, and the idea emerges of a unified concept of Man which has the resonance a religious emblem.  `Glory to Man in the highest!’,[5] Swinburne proclaims, yet we must be wary of believing the poet to exalt humanity as the single dominant force in existence.  Humanity, instead, becomes an element in the metaphysical whole of the Universe.  It is through Man, he suggests, through the understanding of a collective human identity, that we pass on our route towards a perception of the deeper mysteries of creation.

Natural forces become emblems of the supernatural, and humanity is never the dominant force.  Swinburne’s praise of Man was always placed side by side with a recognition of the greater forces of Nature.  Throughout his poetry, the eternity represented by the sea threatens to engulf the temporal existence of Man.  In Tristram of Lyonesse (1882) the lovers’ tomb and the land around it are engulfed by the sea, and, with this, man’s consciousness is immersed in the spiritual unity represented by the natural symbol,

… at last

On these things too was doom as darkness cast:

For the strong sea hath swallowed wall and tower,

And where their limbs were laid in woeful hour

For many a fathom gleams and moves and moans

The tide that sweeps above their coffined bones

In the wrecked chancel by the shivered shrine:

Nor where they sleep shall moon or sunlight shine

Nor man look down for ever:  none shall say,

Here once, or here, Tristram and Iseult lay:

But peace they have that none may gain who live,

And rest about them that no love can give,

And over them, while death and life shall be,

The light and sound and darkness of the sea.[6]

There is a strange metaphysic at work here, for the sea is first a natural dominator over earthly things.  Secondly, however, terms are used which suggest that the sea is a symbol for a spiritual engulfment.   The bodies are beyond the perception of man and nature for no man may mark the grave, and neither sun nor moonlight may shine upon them.  As such they are removed from the natural scheme and become part of a unified spirit of existence.

Looking to a slightly earlier poem of marine engulfment, `A Forsaken Garden’ (1878), there is again a noticeable progression towards metaphysical harmony and unity.  The lovers in the poem have already achieved the unity which love affords them but the state of death unites them at a further level, for `all are one now, roses and lovers’.[7]  The speaker also suggests the sea as a symbol of Universal encapsulation, a unity with being which is projected beyond death:

Here death may deal not again for ever;

Here change may come not till all change end.

From the graves they have made they shall rise up never,

Who have left nought living to ravage and rend.

Earth, stones, and thorns of the wild ground growing,

While the sun and the rain live, these shall be;

Till a last wind’s breath upon all these blowing

Roll the sea.[8]

The verse suggests a teleology beyond that appreciable by man.  The terms of man’s finite existence are nullified in the grander scheme of things, where `death may deal not again for ever.’  The sea takes over from the sun and the rain, the symbols of life for the garden, and Swinburne proposes the sea as a symbol of the domination of known life by an incomprehensible force of Eternity.

We are aware for example in `The Lake of Gaube’ (1904) of the contrast between the individual swimmer, alone in the depths of the water, and the union of that swimmer with some `other’ which he becomes aware of and part of through the activity:

As a sea-mew’s love of the sea-wind breasted and

Ridden for rapture’s sake

Is the love of his body and soul for the darkling

delight of the soundless lake:

As the silent speed of a dream too living to live for a

thought’s space more

Is the flight of his limbs through the still strong chill

of the darkness from shore to shore.

Might life be as this is and death be as life that casts

off time as a robe,

The likeness of infinite heaven were a symbol revealed

of the lake of Gaube.[9]

Likewise in `A Nympholept’ (1894) the poet speaks of `the soul in my sense that receives the soul’[10], a mingling of terms which suggests the individual spirit accepting the collective, and the final lines of the poem emphasise again the constant flux between the sense of individuality and the acceptance of place in a conjoined sphere of being:

For if there be any that hath sight of them, sense, or


Made strong by the might of a vision, the strength

of a dream,

His lips shall straiten and close as a dead man’s


His heart shall be sealed as the voice of a

frost-bound stream.

For the deep mid mystery of light and of heat that


To clasp and pierce dark earth, and enkindle dust,

Shall a man’s faith say what it is? or a man’s

guess deem?


Heaven is as earth, and as heaven to me

Earth:  for the shadows that sundered them here take flight;

And nought is all, as am I, but a dream of thee.[11]

`A Nympholept’ ends in the understanding of a unified whole that accepts within its bounds both heaven and earth, the natural becoming part of a greater spiritual unity.  In these lines, Swinburne captures an elusive moment of spiritual harmony, which vanishes even as he speaks.  As with Alice and the Red King, the speaker is a part of the perceptive conscious of the figure he himself perceives, yet the important aspect of this is the moment prior to the woken dream.  Heaven and earth are unified and the dividing elements which Swinburne described in William Blake[12] are shadows which consequently take flight.

In `The Triumph of Time’ (Poems and Ballads, First Series, 1866) Swinburne had suggested a physical unity with the sea as a release from grief, `I will go back to the great, sweet mother…Close with her, kiss her and mix her with me.’[13]  This unity he felt in both his contact with nature and in the reflection of it in his art.  This fusion was the basis of Swinburne’s understanding of an infinite spirit.  As he observes in the concluding words of `By the North Sea’ (Studies in Song, 1880), the creative spirit of song, the natural world, and the receptive human soul thrive together in the eternal image of the enveloping sea:

I, last least voice of her voices,

Give thanks that were mute in me long

To the soul in my soul that rejoices

For the song that is over my song.

Time gives what he gains for the giving

Or takes for his tribute of me;

My dreams to the wind everliving,

My song to the sea.[2] 

For Fillipinger, “Swinburne accepts mortality and a cruel natural world and rejoices. Swinburne’s song is mingled, despite being last and least, with the natural song of the sea and the wind” (681).  Song is the only human possibility for the poet, and through it he is subsumed within the natural world that fuels itself on mortality. Yet the voice here is not just the sea, but the “cultural song of all poetry,” for immortality implicit in song is voice.  What Reide calls the “Bergsonian, pure memory of the poetry of all ages” (161), is useful to our sense of what Swinburne is calling on, a deeper sense of being to which poetry provides a key access.


In my article Poetry and Voice[10] I do suggest that this is an example that can be fitted to the poetic motivation as a whole.  The notion of voice in and of poetry has given us a sense that the poet finds himself singing alongside the greater song that might be found in nature, humanity, eternity and poetry itself, not of a culturally limited kind but of  something more primal.



     [1].  R. Buchanan, `The Session of The Poets’, Spectator, 15 September 1866, p.1028.

     [2].  Henry Morley Examiner, 22 September 1866, p.599.

     [3].   W. M. Rossetti, Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads:  A Criticism  (London, 1866), p.23.

[4] Spoken by the W.G. Blaikie Murdoch character, McGann, p. 37.

     [5].  `Hymn of Man’ (Songs Before Sunrise, 1871),  Poems, 2. 104.

     [6].  Tristram of Lyonesse (Tristram of Lyonesse and Other Poems, 1882).  Poems, 4. 150-51.

     [7].  `A Forsaken Garden’, (Poems and Ballads, Second Series, 1878).  Poems, 3. 24.

     [8].  `A Forsaken Garden’.  Poems, 3. 24.

     [9].   `The Lake of Gaube’ (A Channel Passage and Other Poems, 1904).  Poems, 6. 286.

     [10].  `A Nympholept’ (Astrophel and Other Poems, 1904).  Poems, 6. 138.

     [11]. `A Nympholept’ (Astrophel and Other Poems, 1904).  Poems, 6. 138.

     [12].  See William Blake:  A Critical Study (1868).  Works, 16. 320-21.

     [13]. `The Triumph of Time’, Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866).  Poems, 1. 42.

     [14].  `By the North Sea’, Studies in Song (1880).  Poems, 5. 110.

[15]. M J Wilson ‘“Last least voice of her voices”: The Voice of Poetry’ in ‘Poetry and Voice: A Book of Essays’ Eds: Stephanie Norgate Editor and Ellie Piddington, Assistant Editor: Nov 2012 Isbn13: 978-1-4438-4109-2

Why do a Creative Writing MA? – Kureishi has a point but so does Winterson

“‘Fuck the prose, no one’s going to read your book for the writing, all they want to do is find out what happens in the story next.'” So says Hanif Kureishi on the broad subject of creative writing courses. Is he right? Of course he is. He’s also hit on the reason most amateur writers struggle. It’s not that they don’t know what a good story is, either. Anyone who wants to write has at some stage experienced a great story. Are good writing and good story related though? That is  part of the great debate, and something to get straight as you’re trying to decide what to learn and who can best teach you it.

Yes we all love a good story. Many of us would love to write one. And yet fiction publishers tell us that the plot (or at least its outline in the synopsis) is not what sells a novel to them. It’s all about “the writing”, apparently, a piece of advice which allows  more chances of error-in-randomness than any aspirant should have to deal with. If what we’re aiming for is some mysterious creative vibe that comes out of a collection of sentences, then what can we possibly be taught? Isn’t this like charisma, or a gift-of-the-gab, or charm – just something that some people seem to have and all we can do is squat down by the campfire and enjoy. If so this sounds horribly like that “born not made” mantra that keeps the cap-doffing sub-creatives in their place.

On the other hand, is there something that needs to be taught? We know we must read and must mature. But is there something beyond the ongoing life-education of experience and observation and repetition? If so, what? Teaching of any creative pursuit easily descends into “do your stuff” workshops, with an occasional evaluation to help you reconsider your decisions, or help you make some. Typically your next teacher tells you the opposite and you’re left wondering whether there’s any useful consensus  on what the goal is, what good writing is. The infamous Zeitgeist adds to the complications too, some have spotted it, some are riding it and others have had it thrust upon them. Is this teachable? Is it something that emerges from the connectivity of a peer group?  Certainly not a banker for today’s customer-centric students.  Far more awkward to pin down than disciplines with a less labile set of benchmarks.

Francine Prose opens her bestselling Reading Like a Writer with a winning set of statements around just this issue:

…if what people mean is: Can the love of language be taught? Can a gift for story-telling be taught? then the answer is no… [yet] for any writer, the ability to look at a sentence and see what’s superfluous, what can be altered, revised, expanded, and especial, cut, is essential…A good teacher can show you how to edit your work. The right class can form the basis of a community that will help and sustain you.

Francine Prose, Reading Like a Writer (Harper Collins, 2006)

The charisma is important, of course, the life and the verve and the brio. There are some writers who can blast out a word-fuelled high energy fix (Martin Amis perhaps), there are those who keep you  bathed warmly in a drip of avuncular mellowness (Stephen Fry, Malcolm Gladwell do this for me).  But the power of a prose-style does seem sometimes to dominate in ways that are not only unproductive but seem to make of fiction writing something that, at it best, it just shouldn’t be. Certainly doesn’t have to be. And certainly doesn’t have to be for the aspirant amateur.

At what point did we all decide that the magical beauty of the prose and the flair of the conceit was to be focussed upon at the expense of a bazzing good story? Kureishi’s point seems a very good one – if you’re writing a book you should at some level accept your responsibility as a story-teller and judge your success according to this rather than a turn of phrase or sleight of philosophy.

Books and stories go together like some dodgy 1970s cinema couple, Sid James and Hattie Jaques probably. There’s some reason to stay together and indeed they’re often seen together but really both partners want out, and their best friends would rather see them separately.

The problem starts with the Literature bods I guess. Anyone coming through a standard literature system grows up with the kind of books that are nourished by the academy, books that without a supportive academic worship of arcane heroism would surely have died a sad and lonely death. Writers – at least the kind of writers who believe a university system has something unique to offer them – take to writing often without any sense of how stories work. The chances are they spent their uni literature courses talking more about pseudo-psychology, the minds of characters or about various theories that play with narrative subjectivity, time displacement or social history. Does anyone come out of a literature degree thinking about story as a nuts and bolts craft, a sequencing of events, intentions and intensities. Perhaps some, certainly not me, and it doesn’t seem to be what most students  are expecting when they go to university to read books. The great novels didn’t have stories (seems to the wisdom of the post-teen classroom) or at least if the story is what you’re interested in then you’re a pleb or a populist and should be pilloried for not reading deeply or intelligently enough to see beyond the plot you loved so much.

If you want stories, go watch films.

Yes, again our colleagues who are heading for industry professionalism in and around Hollywood, Bollywood or Broadcasting House, they know that story counts. Catch what anyone says when teaching scriptwriting and the fancy dialogues, descriptions and character traits are the lesson after the ones about generating narrative interest, emotional journeys, engaging conflicts and satisfying resolutions. In some writing disciplines, story is the star.

Not in literary fiction on the whole, (prose works that require so much reading for the plot that only a crack team of literacists can find it)

In the same article Jeanette Winterson  backs alternative views of what writing is. Fair enough. Hard perhaps to imagine a successful beat-sheet for a film of Art and Lies, but then the same was said of Tristram Shandy.  Hers is a different idea of what it is to teach writing and if you are lucky enough to have her as a teacher I imagine this is what you’d want from her. As a teacher as well as a writer she is in the business of relationships with language: “My job is not to teach my MA students to write; my job is to explode language in their faces. To show them that writing is both bomb and bomb disposal – a necessary shattering of cliche and assumption, and a powerful defusing of the soul-destroying messages of modern life (that nothing matters, nothing changes, money is everything, etc). Writing is a state of being as well as an act of doing. My job is to alter their relationship with language. The rest is up to them.”

The rest being what?

The argument has come up a number of times. Matt Haig compares teaching writing to teaching a musical instrument, “Like most artforms writing is part instinct and part craft. The craft part is the part that can be taught, and that can make a crucial difference to lots of writers.” That seems to be the rest and what to be fair can be taught, at least well enough to make a difference. We seem perfectly happy that children can be taught to write better. There are grades given and tutors can whack a comment on as to how you might improve. Why not at the super-advanced levels? Do we really get to a stage where no-one can improve? Of course not and this is where Kureishi is called into question. Some believe he sees no value in being taught. If he’s right it’s not because writers can’t get better. Rather, it’s because there’s no point them getting “better”. They need to get luckier if anything, (and lets remember how  Willy Russell beautifully delivers this point in The Wrong Boy.) Yes some lessons or at least some peer interventions can help improve you as a writer, as a life-long learner and as a master craftsperson. But does this help you become a “great writer”. No. And there’s no point thinking that an MA is designed to get you into the shoes of a “great writer.” Great writers are above all lucky buggers.

But then, there’s craft

That craft could be in aspects of rhetoric. It could be in structures. Kureshi’s initial point though seems to be not that studying writing is a waste but that time is wasted over-refining some aspects at the expense of others.

(This makes me marvel again at the insight of Richard Sennet – bring on the craft debate, yes please)

Three aspects of   miniaturism:Again the way we are taught to read as critical, inquiring readers is at the heart of this notion of what we should be doing to become writers of a certain kind – the kind whose books get studied by the academy we guess. Most students are encouraged to think in terms of micro-observation. Can we take apart these twenty sentences, examining each to such an extent it merits its own thesis?

Writing lessons are similar exercises in the micro-climate of fictional prose. The most enjoyable lessons tend to have some writing involved: write for half an hour and then we’ll read and discuss is the classic practice. The stimuli are developed to merit a swift half hour of focussed writing. The output for anthologies  and assessments tend to be short forms whether whole stories or sample sections. Very few educational models give the assessor a novel to read for each student come the summer vac.

Thirdly, we are getting increasingly used to culture in miniature, culture in gobbets. Tweets. Vines. Slogans. Shorts. There is increasing value in the shortest forms and these are made valuable by the exquisite detail of their mechanisms.

Yet we don’t often carry sentences with us, not from fiction. We carry plots, storylines or at least our own pitifully broken version of them. However wrapped in the experience of the prose we have become, what we try to piece back together is regularly to do with the storyline.

Should we be studying “creative writing” or should we be studying “writing” or “rhetoric.” A phrase engineered in the 1930s, “Creative Writing” seems for many to hide rather too many excuses for basic flabbiness.  Creativity offers many things for the intelligent particpant, as Rob Pope brilliantly describes (Creativity: Theory, History, Practice 2005). Nevertheless the primary market for the Creative Writing class seems to have certain expectations, often that there will be a chance to take what they are already determined to write to a level of further appreciation, whether that is among classmates or that coveted public, attained through the shamanic mysteries of the publishing system.

No-one can really believe that their Creative Writing course is a passcode to some sanctum of best-selling success, do they? It’s an extra, something to add to the hours of personal labour. If it is a qualification you’re after then perhaps we should ask  how well it stands up to the range of other MA offers, those to do with history or sociology or media. Is it as valuable as other humanities degrees or does the element of ‘creativity’ make it rather more of an option for the hobbyist than for the ambitious corporate professional? How seriously is it taken in the job market?

While the Creative Writing course may not be the same step for the novelist as a Chartered Accountancy course is for the Accountant, it surely makes its value in looking at literary heritage in new ways, ways that involve intervention and participation at their core, ways that can, at their best make sure that the plotting and the stylistics remain an equal partnership.

How to write a novel (#2) – the scenic route

It’s not easy to improve a craft. Let’s be honest, for many of us it’s not easy even to accept improvement is necessary. As Confucius would apparently have said if he’d spoken modern English, “True wisdom is knowing what you don’t know.” It’s a bitter moment when you realise you’ve wandered as far down the less-travelled road as you could, only to discover it blocked. The only way forward is to go back to the place the paths diverged and choose again.

Getting back to the basics and getting them right is a smart move, whatever stage of the journey you’re on: whether your project has hit a stop and you’re wondering how to go forward, whether you’re wondering what to change following the last lot of feedback, or whether you’re at the planning stage for a new venture. Like journeys, more projects than not can be helped with a bit of standing back and scoping, a rekkie of the landscape and a half decent map.

Let’s say that you’re not averse to planning before you write (see the post on planning mentality in how to write a novel #1). Let’s say that you want to get the basics right before looking to the details. What’s the best next step? For me, (and I always wished I’d discovered this long before I finally did) it’s understanding scenes, understanding what a scene should contain and how your plotting work can emerge over a set of scenes.

Scenes and how (not) to write them.

If you’re the type of writer who’s tried and given up or who’s daunted and not sure where to start, then scenes aren’t a bad next thing to get to grips with. Scenes – rather than chapters – are a good means to work out what you want to say and how you need to say it. Dividing into scenes gives clarity. It gives you a unit of writing that you can assess on its own merits. It also gives you an easy set of steps through which to judge the readability of your story.

So, what is a scene?

Scenes are a built-in part of our storytelling behaviour. As long as you have an entity in an environment this could potentially be a scene. So, Person + place = scene. Easy.

What I have found more helpful is to understand where the scene stops and another begins. Person + new place does not necessarily equal a new scene as far as useful novel planning tools. Having Bill thinking about Adele on a mountaintop might be a scene; but then having Bill thinking about Adele in his car is not a new scene. So, there must be something else necessary to make a scene. This is the activity. More precisely, it is the relevant activity, activity that is meaningful to the story development.

For me, Scene = person + place + meaningful activity.

Activity is often a tricky word for would-be novelists. Partly there is a fear that “activity” is “action” and that novels which promise these things threaten to be the poor cousin of films, where action is dealt with viscerally and with an immediacy that novels are not expected to match. I’ve had students who look disgusted at the mention of the word ‘action’. But, action and activity for the novelist take many quiet forms. As Henry James says, “It is an incident for a woman to stand up with her hand resting on a table and look out at you in a certain way.” (The Art of Fiction)

The definition for me here might not quite be what a playwright or screenwriter might consider a scene. For a prose fiction writer there’s no shift of scenery, no division of acts or cuts to place. The shaping of action to fit scene changes gives rise to different thoughts about the nature of the scene and for a novelist there are different opportunities and restrictions.

If we need a neat definition, let’s think of scenes as segments of high-impact writing. Maybe they take place in one place. Or take place across a phone line in two places. Or happen across three timeframes as extra-dimensional characters move through each other and about their business. What matters is that these scenes have impact. Impact given by character. Impact given by setting. Impact given by meaningful activity.

Scenes can fail by having any one of these elements missing. I recognise it in my own learning process when getting to grips with scenes and also in the difficulties students have had in recognising what was unappealing about a segment of their writing.

Divide your work up into what you think are scenes and then check if any of these flaws rings true about them:

-Dialogue rather than scene: this happens a lot. Have your characters all come back together round the same old table? Have a couple started a deep conversation that could be just anywhere but which happens to have an art gallery or the Alps or a ghetto slapped in the background. Has your navel-gazer restarted that multi-page interior monologue but this time while doing keepy-uppies on top of a log. Novelists love to have their characters jabbering back and forth, letting off their writerly steam, allowing those philosophical points have air, giving vent to that sociological thesis. But does your dialogue just turn into a cycle of banter? Try the dialogue out with a different setting and see if it has lost or gained anything. Or try removing it altogether. If it makes no difference where they are or what they’re doing then your scene is probably lacking something.

Description rather than scene: this is often a preface to the problem above or is interspersed with examples of it. It could be that the landscape or the character is over-described. Description of a character with no suggestion of meaningful incident is not a scene in itself. A truly scenic description would still be full of “incident” as with James or “character” as with Hardy (Check out first chapter of The Return of the Native). Description will be part of a scene containing the other elements, ideally not stuck onto it, ideally not easily extricated, certainly not as one wedge. If you sense a place or a character description going on and on, there’s a chance that your scene has disappeared. If you find your so called scene is like describing a picture then it’s probably lacking something. (Less common but also a potential scene-breaker is under-description, so watch that there is at least some sense of who and where as the dialogue commences.)

– Activity rather than scene: A scene can be action-packed of course but for it to work as a scene this should still be activity that is showing character and ideally be an engagement with setting. Where activity fails to become a scene is often in its direction. Is this just any old activity or is it meaningful activity. A car chase isn’t really a scene in a novel, although it might be in a film. Same goes for a slapstick routine or casual bonk-fest. Where is the action going, what are the dramatic results, what is the essential meaning of this activity.

– Philosophy rather than scene: It’s the trap for novelists with a tyrannical inner poet, the trap for novelists who hate plots and storylines and other things that make life easy for readers. It’s easy to pretend it’s not a problem because this is what marks you out as a genius. Why should you go through the trials of entertainment when you can just hide behind something that no-one understands? Your novel may get its true importance from its philosophical brilliance. Warning, though: whatever gems of careful analysis of the human condition you want to drop in, you’ll be a better-loved author if you can them within a genuine scene rather than let them be an excuse for one.

So, first check that your scenes really are scenes. A chapter might be just one scene. A chapter might have several scenes. Unusually a scene could span a chapter break but it would take a pretty nifty craftsperson for this not to be just two scenes with a pause in the middle.

Scenes need a set of components. If your scene is going to have any impact at all then check that it’s doing as many of them as possible – all the high up ones in this list and as many of the rest as possible.

Does your scene:

  • have a central conflict that grows during the action (meaningful activity)
  • end on a point that requires continuation (meaningful activity)
  • turn the reader’s emotions from a positive into a negative or vice-versa. (meaningful activity)
  • have a sense of place.
  • have a developmental element of character.
  • have no reason to be cut shorter than it is.
  • contain a readerly plot reward in the form of something revealed or a nugget of possibility
  • have an opportunity for ‘reading-into’. A ‘two-percenter’, a reward for close attention or esoteric knowledge.
  • have a concentrated moment for reflection and remembering – a quote, an exchange, a one-liner, a philosophical insight?

So, with a list like this one, be prepared to test out all your individual scenes. Don’t be lazy about locations and thinking that place is scene or atmosphere is scene. It’s not a scene if characters just wander in and out of the fog or stumble over chairs in the dark. It’s not a scene if they’re gazing at a memory of your last holiday with its unforgettable sunsets.

What does a scene do?

When you’ve found what a scene is – and you may have your own answers and ideas – it’s worth having a thought as to what a scene does, or what it can do. Importantly it makes people want to read the next scene. Your reader’s not captive. Each scene you get them to read is a chance to pitch for the next scene. See if they’ll read another. Make sure each scene works in and of itself and then make sure they join together, not just as a chain either but as an increasingly formidable structure. This is the way you’ll get the optimum plot structure in order to tell that great story that’s burning to be communicated.

The best thing you can do is get a real grip on the source and nature of the conflict in your scene. I know that would-be novelists who’ve already screwed their faces up at words like ‘action’ do so even more with words like ‘conflict’, believing it refers to super-geezers bent on destruction and survival. Yet, as everyone eventually realises – unless they give up writing altogether – conflict comes in many shades, many tones and many disguises. Conflict can be an internal struggle, a struggle with conscience, a struggle with an environment. Conflict in a story is anything that shows a valid desire being prevented.

So, question one for your planning map: Where’s the conflict? None there? No scene. Try again. Make a scene.

Conflict is the first building block for your meaningful activity. It’s the first sign that this block of text is in itself a scene. There must be a clear conflict or tension, one that either fails to resolve or which kicks off further conflict. The conflict will normally grow, subside slightly and set up further expectations for the development of that tension. This is the pulse of the writing. A pulse which needs to quicken.

Pick up your Rob McKee, turn to page 233 and read about scenes in detail: “A scene is a story in miniature – an action through conflict in a unity or continuity of time and space that turns the value-charged condition of a character’s life.” (Story) He’s talking screen scenes of course, but there’s plenty here for every kind of storyteller to learn. To create the perfect scene takes study and thinking and a real craft, but any work of fiction – probably any story – can be improved by an attention to the function and detail of the scene.

You have your scenes, each a single element where an important move in the intensity and direction of the plot is accompanied by character revelation through decision-making, all against a well-framed scenario and suitable intensifying environment. You then need to check that each scene builds to the next and that your story arc uses them in a satisfying way (let’s save this for another post)

A normal length, normally structured novel might have between thirty and a ninety scenes. You’ll be looking to write about 90,000 words so that makes a set of 90 scenes at 1,000 words or 45 at 2,000. Much less than 40 and you’ll be lucky to have enough contour in the plot. If there’s more than one central conflict in your scene, check that you haven’t got more than one scene (at least for the planning stage, they can be blended later).

Get your scenes sorted

Cause a scene. Make a scene. And let us not forget obscene – a word which endures for those acts which were always best left as gaps, reported events that occurred off-stage…

The individual scene and your attention to both its details and its place in the overall work are a great chance for you to assess and improve your work. Or, if you’re planning, they’re a good way to get the confidence and the direction and those hard-won supplies of energy to keep going till your project has been properly conquered.

If you’re in the planning frame of mind, try and get each scene nailed before you start. What will the scene do? What will the conflict be and how will it build? What will the dynamic of emotions be? Ideally some move from positive to negative, with the next scene going from negative to positive. [Screenwriting gurus even recommend index cards with these things on them coded with +/- (emotional shift) and >< (source of conflict).] What character point will come across? What will the imagery be and what elements of your main theme will be delivered through this package. If you can’t do every single one of your scenes with this kind of close plan then at least try the most important parts, the places of maximum plot shift, the turns if you like. If these major turning points are in place you can have a much more sketchy sense of how those in-betweener scenes might fit and how many you’ll need.

Look back at many successful books and the scenes often stand out as almost effortlessly shaped, delivered and conjoined. Collect your favourites and keep going back over them, check out what makes them work. Troy’s sword scene in Far from the Madding Crowd (1874), the Circe episode in Ulysses (1922), Sister Vertue’s class in Oranges are Not the Only Fruit (1984), the maze scene in One Day (2009). It’s interesting to compare screen scene treatments of literary scenes and with David Nicholls, for example, there’s a chance to see someone with a training in tv and screen who’s now writing novel scenes – worth a study regardless of your personal taste in rom-com.

Successful planning of the scenes needs more than just a sketch of major events. It’s not very helpful to have a bald plot sketch such as: Alice meets Bob, Alice gets a new job, Bob dumps Alice. A good plan will have a scenic development that increases tension and emotional charge around each of these major events. Through each scene there will be clear conflict and a shift of emotion… Alice having to wrestle her conscience in order to do steps x,y and z into the meeting with Bob, Alice moving from depressed to joyful. Bob moving from joyful to depressed as he finds himself saddled with career obsessed Alice… probe the scene, check out which elements need to be tightened, expanded, enlivened. Decide on the shape – set of short sharp scenes? Short then long? Linger and wait then punch? This sense of rhythm in the run of scenes can best be done away from the detail of close writing. This scene scoping work before you get too bogged down with dialogue and description will help you save your best writing for the right moment… and it’ll give you something to work on if another bit seems to be flagging.

So, back to the storyboard….

It is a hard thing to go back to the basics of something you thought you’d mastered, but a picking apart of a work, a defining of scenes and a plan of how to assess, perfect and rebuild, this could save your project.

There is a classic scenario which most obviously hits language learners and the learners of musical instruments, but which wreaks equal damage on amateur writers. It’s what teachers come across as false beginners. More precisely it’s the person who’s self-taught, or who has learnt in the field or just picked it up as they went along. It’s not just the grandiose and the egotistic. It’s also the nervous and the fearful. Keep going blindly on, keep writing, keep stretching filling the pages, keep your head pointed in this direction rather than look down and check if the path is right.

The problem with practitioners of this kind is not that they’re necessarily bad, the problem is that they cannot get any further without unlearning everything they depend on. Typing is another one. How may people get to a decent pace with their hunt-and-peck or unusal keyboard fingering. What if they now wanted to add an extra 40 words per minute? The problem for them is the same as for the strum-it-quick guitarist or the grammer-less language learner. To get any better they would have to join a beginners’ class in at least one of the key areas of the disipline. And by now they are too adept at getting by, too skilled at making do. Getting any better is impossible because un-learning is impossible. Getting better is impossible because going back-to-basics is just too demoralising.

Writing projects are not so different. Eventually you can get to a point where you’d rather keep tinkering with a shapeless mass of words than pull it apart and check what’s wrong with the fundamentals. Try it though.

The mastery of any craft is the gradual reassembly of root elements, each one known, understood and perfected. The exploration of the furthest reaches of the discipline can only come with this craftsmanly depth of understanding, a flow of expertise that depends on the engrained skills and their usage unencumbered by awareness. Eventually all those basics will be second-nature. To get to that stage take everything apart if you have to, keep checking, keep making sure. Be prepared to ask, how good am I? Am I perhaps just good enough at this to impress those few people who aren’t? Or could I be really good? Good enough to be proud of myself? What do I have to do to get there.

Like a great chef checking whether potato fries best at 169 or 170ºC, checking that each basic element is absolutely spot on, this is the key to a successful dish.

I wish I’d learnt this sooner for myself. Eventually I’d had enough slaps around the face to get the message. Learning to write better – learning to do anything better – would probably need a back to square one approach. It would need a forceful rejection of what seemed engrained and obvious. It would need a separation of elements into their constituent parts. It would need the perfecting of each element and then the gradual pacing back out from the most solidly erected base camp…. it was too late, maybe. There’s only some much rebuilding of base camps you’re prepared to do, just as there’s only so much beginners’ grammar or beginners’ scales passages you’re prepared to do if you can already chat to señoritas and strum them a swift song.

Never mind.

With a brave sense that it’s better to be journeying than just to sit by the side of the road, take a good look at what you’ve written. Check where the scenes are and check what can make them better.

Booklist for writers of scenes

Robert McKee, Story: Substance, Structure, Style, and the Principles of Screenwriting

Karl Iglesias, Writing for Emotional Impact

Henry James, The Art of Fiction

Lajos Egri, The Art of Dramatic Writing