Thursday, 12 November 2020

Writing and walking in Sheffield


From Endcliffe Park to Forge Dam

I moved to Sheffield around a year ago, after living in Brighton for over 20 years. The first few months were dominated by our house needing a huge amount of building work – we spent two weeks in a hotel and then moved in just before Christmas. While the builders finished their work, I doom scrolled, watching coronavirus sweep across the world, feeling a growing sense of dread. And then of course it was lockdown. Huge global events, and here I was, in a weird limbo in a new city, living at the edge of the Peak District but not allowed to go there.

But walking was part of my life even then. During the period when basically the builders owned our house and we were interlopers, I walked into Sheffield city centre every day and worked in the central library, sometimes doing my day job, which is working as a senior lecturer for the Open University, sometimes writing my Difficult Fifth Novel, which has a habit of morphing into various different novels as I go along (all of them equally Difficult).  I’ve always walked to get to know a place, and can’t think how you would do it any other way. So now that the second lockdown has commenced – lockdown lite, we might call it – I am recording some of my walks in words and pictures, as is my fellow newcomer, Yvonne Battle-Felton. You can see Yvonne's first Sheffield walk here And if you would like to join us and share text, photos or a video of your walks in your area, Yvonne has some suggestions.

My first walk is the obvious choice – the green chain from our front door (more or less) to Forge Dam. We had no idea how beautiful this walk was when we bought the house, it was a massive stroke of luck to find ourselves in this magical place. The danger seems to be to do the walk too often, so that it loses some of its novelty and allure, but the fact is that it changes all the time, not only with the seasons but also depending on the time of day. During Lockdown One, it was busy pretty much all of the time, full of children, dogs, bikes, joggers of every age, but notably a lot of older joggers who looked incredibly fit, students hanging out, it was throbbing with human activity.

Now, it’s quieter, you can get to see it in a different way. Early morning might be good, but sadly I am not an early morning person. Dusk is lovely, that weird liminal sense of darkness bearing down, of shadows filling up the spaces between the trees, dogs and humans suddenly looming out of nowhere. But I like the sense of being in nature but yet part of a city. For a townie like me, it’s good to measure out the route in coffee opportunities, the café in Endcliffe Park now equipped with a gazebo opposite for rainproof social distancing, the van that parks at the entrance to Whitely Woods at the weekends, and finally the café at Forge Dam itself, next to a pond full of mallards and moorhens and where you can sometimes see a heron.

The walk has zones, all of them wooded with Porter Brook bubbling along beside the path, but getting wilder and less populated as you go along. Once you get beyond Forge Dam, you can smell damp earth, and hear the bleating of sheep – proper countryside, steep pathways, trees outlined against an autumn sky. Sometimes, at the Hunters Bar end, I start off feeling pent-up, irritable, caught up in some admin issue, an email thread that’s tangled up my brain. As I go along, the email threads unravel, the natural world closes in, green, soft, calm, intersected by roads with cars speeding to somewhere as we walk slowly onwards, looking at fungi we can’t identify, at other people’s dogs, listening to odds and ends of passing conversations. ‘That’s just the point Craig, that’s exactly what I said.’ ‘Dad, how long can I stand here?’ ‘Can you imagine her doing this every day?’

I am not a nature-girl. I went to guide camp once and resented the fact that we were meant to make gadgets out of twigs, which seemed nonsensical. I have a fear of slugs and earthworms, have no idea how to dig a garden. 

But this walk has drawn me back to my childhood love of all the smells and textures of the natural world, the cool sense of countryside, going on and on, of things continuing that don’t need human intervention. (Although, perhaps we now need to intervene to preserve this process, rather than taking it for granted.) The walk to Forge Dam doesn’t stop my brain from working overtime, but it shifts the gears, soothes the process, and sifts out the stuff you shouldn’t sweat. 

Thursday, 30 July 2020

How do you invent a character?

On the one hand, I can tell you what I normally say about this, and offer links to numerous writers and pundits who have offered their thoughts on the subject, and I can tell what my creative writing teaching shtick is on this, and perhaps that is fair enough. How you invent a character, right there.

On the other hand, don’t look at me. I literally have no idea. Meaning,  I am half-way through my fifth novel at the moment and omigod. I find myself, on page 180 or wherever, looking at my joint protagonists (for some reason, novel five has ended up with two protagonists aged eight and fortyish, don’t even ask), and I have No Idea whether they conform to want v. need, or the change, flat, negative or open ended character arc. Worse, or is it worse, I can’t even make distinctions, I don’t know what their hobbies are, their birth signs, favourite food, or where they normally go on holiday. When I’m writing, they feel real, and they are doing stuff, and I have made various discoveries about them. When I not writing, I return to the various gurus I’ve consulted in the past, and panic. Are they driving the action? How much agency do they have? What is their Lie? What is putting this Lie under pressure?

I tried to learn ballet when I was small, between the ages of six and nine, I think. I was very, very bad at ballet. Not only uncoordinated, but fundamentally psychologically and emotionally unsuited to the task.  My motivation was the lure of appearing in the yearly dance display at the Mitchell Memorial Theatre wearing a lovely, flowy costume, this being the closest to being a fairy princess that a bookish speccy was going to get.  But between me and that glittering goal were endless rehearsals, mostly not even wearing the proper costume but just my boring leotard and the shoes that weren’t even proper ballet shoes with blocks. Finally, for my very last performance, I tried to focus. I practised, I twirled, I plied, I ran in graceful diagonals, looking surprised (you were supposed to be see an imaginary puppy), I raised my arms above my head in the exact shape that the ballet master modelled for us.  My father, with his usual wry detachment, observed that I was a ‘slave to technique’.

We need technique, writers, dancers, artists of all kinds, but do we need to be enslaved to it? That is the question.

Which brings me back to this: how do you invent a character? The most helpful response I can give is that there isn’t one way. Sometimes, a character appears almost fully formed before you even have a story – Baroness Orczy claimed that she ‘saw’ her most famous character Sir Percy Blakeney, the Scarlet Pimpernel, on an Underground station platform, like a sort of conjuration. Sarah Waters said the two main characters in her novel The Paying Guests needed to be capable of murder, and everything else about them followed from that. Vikram Seth based the matriarch Mrs Rupa Mehra in A Suitable Boy on his grandmother. David Copperfield is a proxy Dickens, and many writers have taken a similar autobiographical approach, from Francois Sagan in Bonjour, Tristesse to Sally Rooney in Normal People. In my first book, I thought I would bypass autobiographical writing completely and wrote the story from a man’s point of view, but actually, he was just the male equivalent of me.

There is a huge amount of advice out there, so if you do want some proper advice check out Linda Seger’s Creating Unforgettable Characters, K.M. Weiland’s Creating Character Arcs or the relevant chapters in James Wood’s How Fiction Works, John Mullan’s How Novels Work or Creative Writing: A Workbook with Readings, published by Routledge and The Open University. For some YouTube thoughts I recommend Tyler Mowery’s Creating Characters Part one and two

Another piece of advice would be to read as many different sorts of novels and stories as possible, and let your mind fill up with them, rather than consciously looking at how each writer tackles this great challenge. Feed your intuition that way, and feel your way towards these people. I am reading stories by Alice Munro at the moment, and you experience the characters and their engagement with their world, rather than being able to say exactly what they are like, or being able to summarize their character traits. Or that’s how it seems to me.

And with that, I sign off and go back to the half-written book, and all those nuanced, nebulous, brain-twisting questions. 


Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Buddy movies and the writer's journey

In a way, writing a novel is like being one half of a buddy movie. At the start there is the sheer incompatibility/unfeasibility factor. You, with your crowded, aching, gadfly brain, half-remembered micro-inspirations and unfulfilled desires. The book, currently a void, not even a pile of paper yet, as there is nothing to print out, not even some electronic symbols on a white electric background because you actually have no idea what the hell it is even about.  This is a relationship that is never going to work.

As you progress, it actually gets slightly worse. After any amount of time, but certainly after producing 30,000 of words, your self-belief undergoes a necessary adjustment. You hit a wall. You nosedive. The words are shit. The idea might be shit, but as yet, you are not even sure it is one. Innocence has been lost, and you and the draft – a mean, truncated, ugly thing – stare at each other balefully.

Maybe you stop at this point and the buddy movie reaches a premature end. Thelma and Louise get a puncture when they are barely out of town, Louise hasn’t shot anyone, Thelma hasn’t had the benefit of Brad Pitt, everything just fizzles. The two women think ‘oh fuck it’ and go home, stuck in their frustrating lives.

Or maybe you carry on. The novel and you patch it up, decide to make a go of things on the basis that neither of you are much good, certainly nothing special, probably a lot worse than the other unwritten novels and their disappointing authors. You grind away, tapping out the terrible stuff. The novel looks on, sceptical. Sometimes you hack bits off the novel, the intolerably irrelevant, the magisterially over-written. The novel shrinks and winces. But you carry on.

This, sometimes, is when it starts to go quite well. You haven’t finished yet, there are a thousand problems still to overcome, but you have reached the part where Thelma and Louise are in their shades, and have just blown up an oil tanker.

Emotional self-management doesn’t come naturally to most of us. I grew up with the idea – based on Hollywood movies - that writing itself was photogenic and intense, the demented author swigging bourbon while sitting at the sweaty Remington, writing into the small hours. By dawn, the novel would be born, a work of genius, a book to change the world. One would expect no less after such a harrowing engagement with the muse. 

But actually, over the years, I have come to accept that not only is writing itself a long game; the production of each individual book or story is itself a multifaceted, time-hungry challenge, and that one of the most difficult aspects of this is staying sane during the peculiar period during which something that does not exist takes shape. Moods swing between mania and zombie-like dejection. Wine tempts. Cake beckons. Twitter glitters.  Self-control is essential at such times, tedious strategies must be adopted: eating your greens, getting fresh air, not reading rave reviews of recently published authors.

My most effective mental strategy is treating the novel like my wrong buddy, the person I am least likely to get on with, my irritating flatmate. Each day we take our places and we carry on. There are goodish days, there are bad days, and eventually, there is a thing. The novel exists. What was once a tiny shimmer of possibility is something else now, usually much less pure and perfect in execution than in imagination, but actually a thing. By managing expectations and checking in each day, it is possible to reach this extraordinary place. If you are lucky, it is the edge of the Grand Canyon and you have found the ending that is the perfect exit for you and your now beloved buddy, your newly finished book.  

Wednesday, 24 June 2020

Writing your lockdown novel

I am one of thousands of people who are writing a novel draft during lockdown. (Let’s hope it’s not millions, but who knows?) The peace and quiet, the sense of a global pause, the endless home-based hours – for those without onerous family responsibilities, this seemed like a golden opportunity. Still seems like it, as ‘lockdown’ segues into ‘period of confusion’.  With a partner better at cooking than I am, a furloughed adult son and a newly part-time job, it certainly seemed like a good time to me. And still does, even though I have no idea how far to stand away from other humans outside my current bubble, or whether I should mask-up to go to Waitrose.

So what is the story now? I teach creative writing, this is my fifth novel, I am half-way through the first draft. I hesitate to call myself an expert, because writing is so peculiar, and each book so different from the last. By the end of any novel, you are generally an expert on that novel, but not necessarily on any other novels you might write. And I’m also the kind of writer who – foolishly, perhaps – writes novels that are dissimilar. I don’t even stay in the same historical period. (That is definitely not a smart move, so my future books may well be set in the Victorian age, like my current Work In Progress.) But I am past the ingenue stage. I know what doesn’t work, for me, at least.

Writing blind

This is the approach in which you just slam the words down, in the spirit of Jack Kerouac. You don’t look back, you don’t read your draft before starting work each day, you just get the darn words down. The file on your computer grows, there are lots of words there. Therefore, you are a writer. There is something to be said for this, because all writing has its use, and this may help you establish a writing habit.

But the reason I know it doesn’t work for me is that I end up with a lot of pages and no story. And the germ of the idea – what the tarot calls ‘the scent of the undertaking’ seems to have been drowned in the wrong words, it’s in there somewhere, but I don’t know how to find it. Both D.H. Lawrence and H.G.Wells used to write a new draft from scratch, rather than editing the existing one, and I wonder if this is because they had that feeling, that they had to have a blank sheet to imagine the story freshly.

Working to a plot outline

I’ve tried this too, bruised from the experience of churning out words. But the problem with this, for me, is that I don’t want to know too much more than my characters do. I have to experience their problems and issues from their point of view, and see how they resolve things. If I already know, and have just put the problem there so I can fill some pages, then the energy goes out of it. The well-balanced approach is to have a rough plot outline, or plot ideas that you think will work, provisionally, but which are subject to adjustment.

Being a perfectionist

People sometimes think that perfectionism is a desirable quality, because it means that someone has high standards. But there are no standards which can deliver perfection – there is no such thing as perfection in human life. No perfect novel has ever been written, not even The Great Gatsby, which sometimes attracts that kind of praise. And even if your finished novel is going to be a work of genius, it has to be allowed to be rubbish at first go. (As Ernest Hemingway famously put it: ‘The first draft of anything is shit.’) So your novel-in-progress will often feel as if it is no good. That is its prerogative.

Talking too much

I once heard Edna O’Brien describing the way young Irish writers sometimes go to the pub and talk their books into oblivion, carried away by the Guinness and the craic. I am a talker myself, if I get excited I want to share what I am working on. Currently, I am keen to bore the partner and adult son with highlights from the life and times of H.G Wells, and they are quite keen not to listen. That kind of stuff is fine, as is sharing drafts with other writers if that works for you – the quid pro quo element helps, you feed back on their work and they feed back on yours and it all feels like part of a process. But talking endlessly about your characters and plot can kill an idea, make it seem almost not worth writing. I try and keep quiet if I can, and jot notes down rather than talking.


This relates to the over-talking issue, because sometimes I want to talk because I want the story to be out there, and I know it will be months, if not years, before that happens. Novels are like lives or relationships, they have phases, seasons, moods, good and bad days, periods when they seem to be spinning down the vortex of your self-destruction (or maybe that is just me), periods of euphoria and hope. What I try to do, at the point I am at now, with 40,000 words down and 40,000 very much to go, is focus on the provisional nature of the writing. I try and keep a balance between clarity and wild imagination, focusing on that first glimmer that made me want to write it in the first place, but also thinking clearly about how that can best be dramatized and live.

I’ve just had the first half printed out (at our local, newly reopened print shop), read it through in hard copy, covered it in notes and corrections, and am ready to move on to the second half. I find that doing it this way stops me from becoming anally obsessed with editing paragraphs and polishing sentences. The editing that happens at that point is about story, more than style.

Does it work? Is this how you write a novel? I’ll let you know. I think it’s probably how I will write this one. For now, it’s onwards and sideways, following this weird thing where it needs to go.

Monday, 15 June 2020

My top five writing guides

It’s week 13 of lockdown in the UK and my energy levels are definitely beginning to flag. What seemed like a welcome pause in frenetic 21st century living - for those of us lucky enough to be in work and in reasonable accommodation - now feels like a prolonged period of uncertainty tinged with paranoia. Not the best situation for writing, perhaps, and I know many people are struggling to get words on the screen or page.

But it’s also true that writers have been producing work in adverse circumstances since whenever, whether personal or political or a mixture of the two. Virginia Woolf struggled with her mental health, George Orwell with TB, Chester Himes (author of A Rage in Harlem) started writing and publishing fiction while serving eight years in prison for armed robbery.

So, it’s time to reboot, recharge the batteries and return to the Work in Progress. These are five books that have helped cheer me on, over the years, and I’d recommend them to anyone, at any stage of the writing process. 

Geneva Dawn by Nouhailler is licensed under  CC BY-SA 2.0

1. On Writing; A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King

Wonderfully down to earth, filled with King’s own experiences of the highs and lows of writing, and pithy advice about getting started and keeping going. Busts the myth about alcohol fuelling great writing, too. The account of his near-fatal accident is as vivid and shocking as you would expect from this master story teller. A favourite with experienced writers as well as newcomers.

2. The Art of Fiction, David Lodge

Lodge gives a clear overview of the elements of writing, from Beginning to Ending, and taking in Suspense, Interior Monologue, Defamiliarization, Weather, Fancy Prose and Magic Realism along the way. Elegantly written, and with a short extract at the start of each section which illustrates the point being made. A book to dip into again and again – my copy is bulging with Post-It notes.

3. Steering the Craft: Exercises and Discussions on Story Writing for the Lone Navigator or the Mutinous Crew, Ursula le Guin

Le Guin is best known as a science fiction writer, but this book is invaluable to writers in any genre. It’s just as useful to writers working alone as those in a creative writing class, and the playful tone makes it accessible and easy to refer to. I love the passion and commitment that informs this book. As Le Guin says: ‘To make something well is to give yourself to it, to seek wholeness, to follow spirit.’

4. Into the Woods: How Stories Work and Why We Tell Them, John Yorke

Yorke is a screenwriter and drama producer, and this book is filled with references to story and narrative on the screen. But his insights are extremely useful to fiction writers too. Here he looks at the fundamentals of storytelling and the reasons that there are so many common elements to a compelling story. Here is an example of York at work, speaking to employees at Google 

5. The Right to Write, Julia Cameron

Cameron is a passionate advocate of the writing process as a form of self-discovery. I find her approach borderline hippie at times, but it works. One of the approaches she advocates is writing morning pages when you wake up – this is not easy, particularly if like me you aren’t much of an early bird. (I am borderline dynamic after 8.30 am, pretty much slug-like any earlier than this. I can just about manage a masochistic bout of yoga, but thinking is out).

Reading any of these books is a reminder that writing, while not necessarily fun, is a sustaining, grounding process if you approach it with patience and commitment. Top tip: try to avoid thinking about agents, publishers, Twitter storms and The Voices while you are engaged in writing. See you writing space as a place apart, where you can think and write what you like. That works for me, and it may well work for you.

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

How to be a great writer

This website is dedicated to helping writers write, avoiding the how-to-actually-write in favour of the how-to-actually-be. Today, inspired, frustrated, maddened, whatever, by lockdown, I have branched out into how to be not just a writer, but a great one. Because, let’s face it, none of us want to mess about.

1. Ignore all fashions, facts and the Twitter zeitgeist.

2. Read everything possible – good, bad, current, classic, in every genre.

3. Become a word-nerd, read poetry aloud, peruse the dictionary, memorize brilliant sentences.

4. Have an unhappy childhood.

5. Either a. give up drinking alcohol or b. become an alcoholic. Moderation is the enemy of genius.

6. Write first thing in the morning, for at least half an hour. Don’t stop to brush your teeth.

7. Fall in love unrequitedly. Take notes.

8. Fall in love requitedly, then fall out of love, by very gradual degrees. Take copious notes.

9. Be extremely selfish and sacrifice your family and friends to Art when necessary, or if you feel like it.

10. Ignore all lists: they are for mediocrities.

Friday, 8 May 2020

Living la vida lockdown

Tense, moi? Apparently not. All my life I have been a hypochondriac, a worrier, awfulizer and general unease generator, and now here I am, locked down in a pandemic. I seemed to be the only person to get into a serious anxiety state about the bird flu outbreak in 2004, eventually only able to sleep at night when I bought some Tamiflu from a Canadian website for £400, which I could not actually afford. I kept it under the stairs, mindful of the fact that when it All Kicked Off, my neighbours might murder me to get their hands on it if I revealed its whereabouts. (It was for my kids, not theirs, I had totally embraced the whole Sarah Connor/Terminator mindset.) I threw it out two years later when we moved house. By then I was panicking about something else. And yet, weirdly, here we are in an actual dystopian movie styled by Waitrose food magazine, and I am completely calm.

Perhaps this is because I feel my constant fearfulness has now been vindicated. Things really were going to get this bad, and the well-adjusted optimists were wrong. Or perhaps because I have the perfect lock-down personality – unsociable, introverted and bookish. This time last year, I was on a train to Manchester, off to run a historical fiction conference, busy, busy, busy. Now I’ve started working part time at a point when the entire planet feels as if it has taken the same decision. There is stillness with the worry. There is birdsong outside the window, I’ve even heard owls hooting.

And yes, I do find I can focus on writing. I don’t write for hours, I do about two or three hours on my non-work days. My strategies, such as they are: limiting doom-scrolling; drinking one small glass of wine a day; walking in the evening (as seen in the photo - wonderful Endcliffe Park in Sheffield) and postponing a self-improving assault on Massive Novels in favour of short stories and poetry. (Still don’t really know how to read poetry, still staring at the words the way I used to look at pictures in galleries or art movies where nothing happens, waiting for someone to give me the explanation.) 

Also, I don't understand the urge to read The Road or La Peste at this point in time; I am definitely in the Barbara Pym comfort reading camp, although usually I don't *get* her novels. Vicars, quietly chic heroines, teashops in the 1950s - her books are the literary equivalent of Bake Off, but with a tincture of astringency. Just the job, unfettered feel-good makes me uneasy.

This is not advice - what works for me may be hell for other people - but I feel strangely functional. Lockdown might be scary, but for those of us who aren't on the frontline it is a chance to let things settle somehow, and that can't be bad.