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I don’t write comedy. I might have amusing scenes, or light-hearted poetry, but I am not someone who is skilled at the laugh out loud moments.  I’m thinking about this, because this week I went to see the funniest play I can remember, The Play That Goes Wrong

Comedy is most definitely an art.  Depending on the nature – physical, reflective, political – completely different skill sets are needed.  For writing, it’s also about picking the perfect words.

I don’t think I have ever really appreciated the art involved in creating a funny, engaging, novel. Most of the comedic poetry I have discovered is quite light, nothing to get you thinking too deeply, but that isn’t the same with a book.

For novels, there’s got to be engagement and sustained levels of comedy over 70,000 or more words.  It sounds impossible!

I am trying to think of a few that are genuinely comedies (rather than simply witty or light-hearted) and am going to have to review a few.  I would really like to understand how it can be done!

I am never likely to write a truly comedy novel, but I might see how to tie in a few more smiles for readers.

Plus, what a great project to see me through the autumn: books to make me laugh!

If you have any suggestions, please let me know in the comments…

Happy laughing!

EJ

🙂

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I have found my writing mind wandering rather a lot over the last few days, seeking out the perfect words to start a story.

It comes, of course, from studying the importance of language and the need to find the right word.

I don’t have a story, as such: what I want is an opening line.  A selection of sounds that creates a rhythm, a selection of ideas which form a substance.  A selection that say exactly what I want them to say.

But I am torn, because I know this urge to just write has to be contained in some way: I jump into writing with no plan too often and struggle to build a back story to support my beginning.

So I am going to try a new writing exercise, an experiment in control.  I am going to work at writing a great sentence, honing it and moulding it until it is exactly what I want – and then I will put it aside and start on another one.  And then another, and another and so on. But I will not use them; instead they will sit, ready and waiting, for my planning and shaping to be done.

It feels odd and slightly ridiculous to want to find a perfect sentence and risk never using it, but that isn’t the point of the exercise.

No, the point is that all sentences deserve that level of attention – and still they might never make it into a story.  Meanwhile I will get into the habit of working harder at seeking out the exact word I need, and checking for the sound of my work, in all aspects of my writing.

I am really excited to see what I can produce!

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

 

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A few weeks ago I told you that I registered for a number of writing courses, to bring me back into a more structured way of thinking about writing.

I have completed the first one, which focussed on plot, and it was both extremely interesting and slightly perturbing.

I try to take in all the rules and suggestions but sometimes I struggle to see writing as an academic exercise.  I wonder why we have so many rules in place for our work, creating artificial barriers and sections, when many of the most successful and prolific writers we read never once went to a lecture on narrative structure!

Still, it makes me think a little more about what a publisher is looking for, and there is definitely a structure which is considered less ‘risky’.

My first novel does not fit this, or at least it doesn’t cleanly fit it.  I debate the benefit of trying to force my story into a new structure simply to meet some short-hand standard, and I don’t know that I want to edit with that standard in mind.

However, for future works this is a good way to manage the planning and plotting process.

The benefit of rules in writing is that they provide the foundations on which to hang the clothes of your story. There is a controlling element that can be utilised to pull you back into line or show you where there is room for growth.

Rules are the corsetry of your story.

Some writers are confident and skilled enough go be free but at this point, with the writing market as it is and the unwillingness of agents to take on first time writers, rules make sense to get past the first hurdle and at least be read.

Interestingly though, the rules I am learning now are not those I was taught before – in a relatively short space of time the focus of writing has changed.  I am not sure if that is partly to do with the audience – my first course was via a UK university, the current courses are via a US university – or if the writing market really has changed so much in a few years.

I have been told that agents are moving out of fiction into non-fiction, read that unknown authors are too high risk for significant numbers to be taken on, and that the amount people can expect to earn from their writing is diminishing.  It would not surprise me at all to learn that agents look for a specific structure in the work they receive because they have to limit their own risk.

I wonder if it’s true that a reader will be dissatisfied if the rules aren’t followed, as is the message.  I need to read with the rules in mind, see how they affect my experience of a story.

Mostly though, I need to understand them fully because unless I do, I won’t know whether to risk breaking them!

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

 

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In real life, you probably feel thousands of things without even thinking about it: the chalkiness of a washing tablet, or the roughness of a cheap pair of jeans, or the greasiness left on your fingers after eating a cake.

In writing, feeling is meaningful.

Now, I appreciate that may seem a huge generalisation but as a reader do you expect everything a character physically feels to be described?   I am sure the answer is no.

So the next question – why does a writer choose to describe something?

The writer has to make decisions about what they believe adds something to the story.  If you read that a character is laying on a bed, it tells you very little.  If you are told he is laying on clean Egyptian cotton sheets which still hold the scent of a summer breeze, you learn something – he is in a comfortable, homely place.  If you read he is laying on a gritty, grubby, sweat-stained mattress where he can see the fleas jumping on and off his skin, you know he is somewhere down at heel, possibly dangerous and certainly not somewhere he would aspire to be.

How things feel has a big impact on the reader’s understanding and our job is to give the right information to lead them down the path we choose.

There’s also an element of character that can be built through feeling: from the extreme e.g. Nathan in the TV series Haven who couldn’t feel anything until he was touched by the woman he loved, to the more everyday experience of Grace’s rough working hands in Margaret Atwood’s Alias Grace which were a result of her place in the world. 

And of course it’s part of setting, which continues to be my focus.

I am currently reading with this concept in mind as a way of exploring different stylistic choices.  For me as a writer, the key is to use feeling to add detail to a scene.

As a reader, I don’t want to notice the technique, only be drawn into the story.

Having both elements in balance is the skill I am trying to hone.

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

 

 

 

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This post would probably make a better Thursday post so for this week I’ll swap them about and give you a writing update then.  I just felt the need to write about this straight away!

Today I read one of those articles that makes me think about the nature of writing.

It was an interview with Rachel Cusk, whose writing notoriety comes of a very personal telling of the story of her divorce.

There were three specific points that struck me: that the line between fact and fiction is a murky one; that writers should not accept not being liked; that life as a writer is lonely and unsettled.

Obviously the third is a personal experience and not one all writers would subscribe to, but the idea of planning for a couple of years then going into isolation to write for a month does have its attractions 🙂  I think my biggest writing failure is lack of planning, so if I were to learn anything from Cusk it would be to do more of this, and the reality of my experience is that when I don’t plan sufficiently, I have a great start to a story but fizzle out in the middle.

However, for me as an individual, cutting myself off and being distant rather than friendly seems unnatural – I am definitely a people person!  So maybe the take-away is to accept that time alone is beneficial and learn to build it in as long as it suits me.

The second is as much about having a thick skin as anything else but is also about how much of a shared experience it is reasonable to use in your work without the agreement of the other parties.  It’s tied closely into the first, which is what really interested me: where does the line between fact and fiction start?

To me it’s simple – a real event or experience, a real story of a real person, is fact.  You can muddle the edges a little, change the weather or the setting, but it’s still that person’s story.

However, in reality it’s not quite as easy to define because our fictions are built from a million personal experiences.  We are inspired by overheard conversations, or newspaper articles: I am a great fan of writing in my notebook when something piques my interest, and all these things can be seen as a muddying of the waters.

My underlying belief is that if someone I know/know of can identify themself and their story in my work, I have not written a ‘proper’ fiction.

Of course, I am specifically trying to keep the fact and the fiction apart.  One quote of Cusk’s that really made me think was this:

“The idea of fiction or non-fiction to me has become so meaningless,” she says. “Saying, is this ‘true’? I’m surprised people care. I definitely don’t.”

(quote from telegraph.co.uk; 1 October 2016)

This line of thought sits much more appropriately in my poetry, where truth is as I see and feel it.  Poetry is my place to tell my story.  Not all the poems are inhabited by real people or experiences but they have flickered as ideas in my mind as a a result of things I have heard or seen.  They have met a need to process my emotions or experiences.

Fiction is not a place where I tell my own story.  It’s a place where I tell the story I want to read, the one I want to share – and that is a profound difference in my eyes.

As a writer it’s important to consider why I have such strong feelings about that line, and why I worry about crossing it.  At the core of it, I think it’s because I consider things from the human point of view first – I consider the individual and the impact my work will have on them – and the narrative second.

Does that make me silence my writing voice sometimes?  Probably; but it’s the choice I made and the only one I feel comfortable with.  Poetry exists as a half-way house of my vision of an indistinct world but even there the other players are shadowy and indistinct enough to be unrecognisable to the outside world.

For me it comes down to a different truth than Cusk’s; in my truth there has to be a line between fiction and non-fiction, if only so a writer can decide whether they are willing to cross it.

Fundamentally, it’s about the morality of writing – and the only guidance we have on that is the legal framework, and ourselves.

Let me know what you think…

Happy writing,

EJ

🙂

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I didn’t get through a novel this week, so revisited some poetry instead.  It’s a bit of a cheat really, because I tend to read a few that grab my attention rather than the whole book of poetry, but this one deserves a mention!

Book 36 – Willow, Wine, Mirror, Moon: Women’s poems from Tang China, translated by Jeanne Larsen. This is a book of poetry written 1000-1400 years ago, and is a treasure trove of beautiful imagery and culturally-specific references.  The book is split into sections based on the roles the women had in their society – Women of the Court, Women of the Household, Courtesans and Entertainers, and Women of Religion.  The poems themselves are a mixture but the one thing that binds them together is that they deal with real experiences.  They are a reflection of, and a response to, life as they lived it.

I referred to this book way back in 2012 and have mentioned Jeanne Larsen more than once – her book The Silk Road is one of my favourites – so obviously this isn’t a new discovery.  However, even as a re-read I am struck by the spare beauty of the work.  Simple images convey an enormity of emotions, but there is also a directness, a willingness to address life: loneliness, bitterness, hope, love – these women were constrained by their lives and found an outlet for those feelings in their writing.

This style of work really entices me in, and I have even written my own works influenced by the stylistic methods of these writers; it lives on because of its beauty and accessibility.

I love this poetry and I was glad to rediscover it after a few years, because it fills me with a desire to write.

Happy reading,

EJ

🙂

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This week I have been doing too much, and not enough.

There have been a lot of things going on – appointments, extra meetings at work, extra hours at work, reading a script for the drama group and so on – and writing has taken a little bit of a back seat.

It’s frustrating, but just because the words haven’t quite hit the page it doesn’t mean I haven’t been planning – it’s important for me to remember that!

I have mapped out logistically how to take what I picked up from the crime writing convention and apply it to the whodunnit. I have a new storyline because one of the key things I realised as I sat in that audience was that a police procedural is not my style.

Now, that’s a bit of a worry, because I wrote a story wrapped around a police officer. But with some tweaks, I can make it effective as a more angsty/psychological story which is more about perception and not entirely about reality…

It became really clear as I listened to police officers and ex police officers, and civilians who are authorised to go out in uniform in police cars, that it’s not the route I want to take. They are experts and can bring years of experience to their work, they can use the language, the systems, without fear of getting a major detail wrong.

I can’t do that, and I am not in a position to give up work to go around chasing gangs in a police car any time soon, so my best bet, and the one I think will work better, is to work with what I know: people.

At last, a degree in Sociology might have a tangible benefit!

There are resources, of course – but one thing I know from research (yay Sociology again!) is that there’s nothing better than doing your own: only you will know exactly what it is you are looking for.  This isn’t science, it is about people in potentially dangerous situations responding based on their own experience and belief system.  If I only needed a few details to pin it together, I could ask one of my lovely contacts for help.  However, there’s a lot more than that to do, and I have to make it work for me.

All this sounds like another head-hitting-wall moment but it really isn’t, because a) I realised what I can bring to my writing from my own background and b) the whodunnit was never meant to be anything more than an exercise in twisting a tale – the fact I have now seen its possibilities is completely unexpected and quite marvellous!

I am going to leave it there today, on what I truly think is a positive point. Next week I have to get back into sending out my work but for now I’m focussing on the fact that I am working, even when my pen hasn’t really touched my paper.

Happy writing,
EJ
🙂

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