Tag Archives: advice on writing

What to remember next time…

‘You grab stuff, stick it in a mincer, turn a handle and this other stuff comes out. People go ‘mmm, this is nice’, or ‘it could have done with a bit more of that’ – and then you think ‘I must remember next time to put onions in it.’

Michael Rosen – poet, writer, broadcaster and former children’s laureate on the complex process of writing…

Things I wish I’d known when starting out: don’t second guess what ‘they’ want.

I’ve been giving workshops in the South West this week, enjoying the passion and engagement of the playwrights I’ve met and the vibrant communities they constitute. They’re confident dramatists, mature, informed and getting on with it: making their own companies, directing and producing each others’ work, collaborating and creating… It’s been inspiring and uplifting to see such activity and optimism in the face of cuts and redundancies I’m hearing about elsewhere in the UK.

So in the midst of this week of discussions and long conversations I’ve been reminded again of some of the things I wish I’d known when starting out

It seems regardless of how experienced you may be as a self-producer, when it comes to potentially  getting your foot in a building based theatre’s door, the questions are the same: What are they looking for? What kind of script may get me noticed? What do ‘they’ want? Or at least those were the queries some of my fellow writers asked me over the slightly warm wine, smiling like conspirators, lowering their voices.

For years I’ve seen emerging playwrights trying to second guess directors, producers and literary managers, or considering shaping their emerging work towards whatever is currently doing well. It’s an understandable impulse, but deadly. Never try to jump on a band wagon. Whatever is currently trending would have been seeded over eighteen months ago. By the time ‘your’ version amounts to something, it will be very much out of date.

And as to what ‘they’ want…? What every director and literary manager and producer is looking for is fresh work, made with energy and skill and passion, about subjects that matter to you, communicated in a way that has resonance to all. They want strong, developed, realised ‘voices’ with something to say. They don’t want mynah birds, or would-be mind readers. They want to be surprised, moved, excited. They want to hear what you think is important, in the form and aesthetic you want to use. So trust it. Trust your own voice and your own passions.

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 145 – 150

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Further words on writing fiction gleaned from interviews, and articles, by the award winners and published…

145).  Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break [the] rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.   (Hilary Mantel)

146).  Finish everything you start. Get on with it. Stay in your mental pyjamas all day. Stop feeling sorry for yourself. No alcohol, sex, or drugs while you are working.  (Colm Tóibín)

147).  Tell the truth through whichever veil comes to hand – but tell it. Resign yourself to the lifelong sadness that comes from never being satisfied.  (Zadie Smith)

148).  Trust your creativity. Enjoy this work!  (Jeanette Winterson)

149).  Talent trumps all. If you’re a ­really great writer, none of these rules need apply. If James Baldwin had felt the need to whip up the pace a bit, he could never have achieved the extended lyrical intensity of Giovanni’s Room. Without “overwritten” prose, we would have none of the linguistic exuberance of a Dickens or an Angela Carter. If everyone was economical with their characters, there would be no Wolf Hall . . . For the rest of us, however, rules remain important. And, ­crucially, only by understanding what they’re for and how they work can you begin to experiment with breaking them.  (Sarah Waters)

and if indeed this is the end of this long running and much loved series, I have to draw a conclusion with:

150).  Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.  (Samuel Beckett)

I hope you enjoyed.

Kaite x

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 141 – 144

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A few more provocations on the writing life…

141).  A writer, like an athlete, must ‘train’ every day. What did I do today to keep in ‘form’?
  (Susan Sontag)

142).  If you’re actually allowing your creative part to control your writing rather than a more commercial instinct or motive, then you’ll find that all sorts of interesting things will bubble up to the surface.  (Emma Thompson)

143).  You will have to write and put away or burn a lot of material before you are comfortable in this medium. You might as well start now and get the necessary work done. For I believe that eventually quantity will make for quality. How so? Quantity gives experience. From experience alone can quality come. All arts, big and small, are the elimination of waste motion in favor of the concise declaration. The artist learns what to leave out. His greatest art will often be what he does not say, what he leaves out, his ability to state simply with clear emotion, the way he wants to go. The artist must work so hard, so long, that a brain develops and lives, all of itself, in his fingers.  (Ray Bradbury)

144).  Write for tomorrow, not for today.  (Andrew Motion)

Exit pursued by bear…. some thoughts on stage directions

imagesI recently got into discussion with two different friends about the same issue. It was not about Syria, the treatment of women in India, Cameron’s stupidity on Europe or even the distressing activity of the nasty party in the UK generally. We weren’t discussing the level of unemployment in Spain, or the depth of the snow in the East neuk of Fife. I’m afraid it was one of the geekiest of dramaturgical discussions. It was about stage directions.

When I teach, this is an issue which crops up repeatedly. How much information should we put into our scripts? What follows is a precis of some (but not all) of my thoughts on the issue of stage directions…

1) We are dramatists writing a blueprint for the stage. (Passionately) Please respect the skills and imaginations of those who read the work, plus the actors or directors who may produce it. (Sarcastic) It is a collaboration. Allow actors to surprise you with how they interpret a line. (With menace) Please try not to control your actors, nor infringe on their and the director’s process and creativity by trying to direct how a line ‘should’ be said by putting an impossible action (bursting into tears) in italics, bold, or brackets before a line of dialogue. (Laughing bitterly) You may discover they know better than you how to present the line, and in an unexpected, thrilling way, beyond the narrow confines of your own initial ‘hearing’ or interpretation provided by the voice in your head. Besides, they will no doubt ignore what can be seen as a vain and ridiculous attempt to nail everything down, to be in control. Sadly, you will only be revealing your own inexperience and distrust. If you have done your work well, the character, dynamic, and intention will come across. It will be there in the dialogue, the pace, the action, choice of vocabulary, the syntax, the subtext, the thrust of narrative and revealed characterisation. Of course errors and misinterpretations can occur, but please please please don’t give emotional stage directions anywhere in your text.

2) Be sparing in your descriptions of the set. You will discover that the detailed description of every stick of furniture, its placement Stage Left/Right/Centre, plus items on it (also known as props) will invariably not have been written by any playwright post 1956, but is actually the loving, exquisite work of the company’s Deputy Stage Manager, or DSM, who has recorded all from the production in ‘the book’. This then may have been the script sent to the publisher.  However, the tendency to write extremely long descriptions of an interior in excruciating and gnomic detail in the second decade of the twenty first century will invariably reveal that the playwright has probably not read a contemporary script, or a publisher other than Samuel French. I am not being snide, snobby, or bitchy about Samuel French – I think they do splendid and immensely useful publications, specialising as they do in presenting all the practical elements required for production (including prop lists, costumes, etc). The issue is when a contemporary playwright presents such a description of the set. It will either be seen as further proof of a control freak (see 1), or someone not widely promiscuous in the purveyor of play texts. I personally know that when we are first creating the world of our play, we need to write everything down (including description of set, costume, traffic of the stage, how lines are said, etc). Once the draft is developed, it will probably do the writer a favour to then cut these descriptions out. Allow your reader (and hopefully future director, designer, actors, etc) to create it anew – to ‘own’ it – and provide their own versions.

 3) A handsome man of above average height wearing a check suit under a buttoned-up mackintosh enters USR. With a barely perceptible smile he moves elegantly on a diagonal to the battered oak table, its surface ruined by coffee rings too numerous to count and generations of careless family use, sitting on a slight angle front edge pointing DSR on the elegant Persian rug CS. The moon glints in the window USL and falls on the exquisitely hand knitted Arran jumper worn by our heroine, sauntering with assumed nonchalance   

Had to stop, was losing the will to live writing that. See 2 above re-‘the book’ and DSM re-traffic of the stage and 1 above for being a tyrannical control freak.

Don’t do it. A simple indication of who enters or leaves will suffice. The director and actors will decide where they stand/move. The lighting designer will decide where the moon glints from (if at all). The costume designer will decide – etc etc. Our job is to write the play. We don’t like it when a director or actor tries to rewrite our lines or do our job. So respect, and let them do their job, also.

4) Assume you will have a production and there will be collaborators to deal with that other stuff (If you don’t want others to contribute, but want to do it all yourself, good luck, but I doubt you’ll have read this far, anyway).

5) There are of course exceptions to these – playwrights whose vision not only created extraordinary stage worlds, but who also rewrote the so-called rules, who challenged convention, transformed theatre, and brought in new forms, processes, theatre languages… They of course often used stage directions extensively (see Beckett), but not in the manners outlined, above.

I hope we will continue to have more such innovators, so as for everything I write, nothing is rigid, nothing is prescribed, but I hope it is stimulating.

(c) Kaite O’Reilly. 25/1/13. 

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 137 – 140

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A few more shots in the arm from published writers on process and making fiction, and a life.

137).  The only story that seems worth writing is a cry, a shot, a scream. A story should break the reader’s heart.   (Susan Sontag)

138).  Keep human.  See places, go places, drink if you feel like it. Don’t be a draught horse! Work with pleasure only.  (Henry Miller)

139).  Language is lazy, it wants to revert to what’s obvious, to what’s been said before, to short cuts to seeing (blue sky, torrential rain, a kindly old lady, and so on). The writer is pushing back against that inertia in expression all the time, refusing the package of familiar associations that offers itself, refusing the comfort of easy moralising, refusing the well-worn perspective.  (Tessa Hadley)

140).  You must have a room, or a certain hour or so a day, where you don’t know what was in the newspapers that morning, you don’t know who your friends are, you don’t know what you owe anybody, you don’t know what anybody owes to you. This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you may find that nothing happens there. But if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen.  (Joseph Campbell)

In their own words: Interviews with giants of Twentieth century English literature…

I am addicted to interviews with writers. Those who follow my 150 ‘rules’ for writing fiction will know I seek interviews out, skin, fillet, and debone them, slicing away the choicest quotations and sharing them here on this blog. It is a compulsion, a relatively harmless habit I like to think, a leisure activity as well as being part of my professional development. I love thinking about process and hearing about what other writers, of all forms, do.  When those writers are some of the pillars of twentieth century English literature, I know I need to pay attention, but I’m in for a phenomenal time.

Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Bowen, Rebecca West, Christopher Isherwood, EM Forster, Muriel Spark, Aldous Huxley, Daphne du Maurier…

It is a roll call of the great – and  not only in their own words, but their own voices, too. I have stumbled across an archive of BBC interviews, a treasure trove of experience and anecdote, and in spoken word. This resource has been readily available and for some time on the net – but assuming you too have overlooked the archive, I urge you to seek it out.

Here is eleven minutes with Elizabeth Bowen from October 1956, discussing the importance of character to the novel – her voice regal and of another age. Or twenty four minutes and forty two seconds with Iris Murdoch from May 1965, debating the artistic conflict between philosophy and novel-writing, freedom and form….

There are more recent names, too: Toni Morrison, Alan Bennett, Kazuo Ishiguro, John Berger, Angela Carter, Zadie Smith, Hilary Mantel…. It is a wonderful resource and well worth exploring. You’ll find it at:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/archive/writers/

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction: 133 -136.

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A few more thoughts about writing by those who have written and published spectacularly…

133).  The solution to a problem — a story that you are unable to finish — is the problem. It isn’t as if the problem is one thing and the solution something else. The problem, properly understood = the solution. Instead of trying to hide or efface what limits the story, capitalize on that very limitation. State it, rail against it. 
 (Susan Sontag. Diary notes. 7/31/73)

134)   I write as straight as I can, just as I walk as straight as I can, because that is the best way to get there.  (H.G. Wells)

135)   Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.  (William Wordsworth)

136).  The time we have alone, the time we have in walking, the time we have in riding a bicycle, is the most important time for a writer. Escaping from the typewriter is part of the creative process. You have to give the subconscious time to think. Real thinking always happens at the subconscious level.  (Ray Bradbury)

One hundred and fifty ‘rules’ for writing fiction:129-132.

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Jet lagged from working in Singapore, here’s some further pieces of advice from the great and the good, whilst I recuperate and formulate a blog on my trip…

129).  In the planning stage of a book, don’t plan the ending. It has to be earned by all that will go before it.  (Rose Tremain)

130).  When I’m in writing mode for a novel, I get up at 4:00 am and work for five to six hours. In the afternoon, I run for 10km or swim for 1500m (or do both), then I read a bit and listen to some music. I go to bed at 9:00 pm. I keep to this routine every day without variation. The repetition itself becomes the important thing; it’s a form of mesmerism. I mesmerize myself to reach a deeper state of mind.  (Haruki Murakami)

131).  Moving around is good for creativity: the next line of dialogue that you desperately need may well be waiting in the back of the refrigerator or half a mile along your favorite walk.  (Will Shetterly)

132).  Writing is finally a series of permissions you give yourself to be expressive in certain ways. To invent. To leap. To fly. To fall. To be strict without being too self-excoriating. Not stopping too often to think it’s going well (or not too badly), simply to keep rowing along.  (Susan Sontag)

Creative burnout…. time to in-put instead of out-put.

It’s not always possible to be creative.

This may not seem the most eye-catching of statements, but for the writer/maker/artist/practitioner it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the obvious from time to time.

But actually, is this so obvious? I’ve often spoken to writer friends who get anxious when they’re not producing, or whose research/planning periods seem to be going on longer than usual, with no initiating idea to get them started on the rough draft.

When I look about me (in real life as well as online), there seems to be a culture of constant creativity, with no let-up in pace and productivity. Friends have no sooner delivered a novel or screenplay or theatre production when the next one is being anticipated. It feels as though we are in perpetual assembly line mode – out-putting constantly, with no dip in quality or originality allowed. In fact, more innovation seems to be expected each time.

And suddenly, I’m feeling very tired with all this activity…

And suddenly I long for something more organic, human-friendly and balanced.

And suddenly I’m reminded I am a farmer’s daughter, where there were seasons for planting seeds, fertilising, growth, and harvest – not forgetting those essential periods for laying fallow.

Have we forgotten the basics, in order to try and keep ahead of the game?

Many of my friends are exhausted, and it’s not just that tiredness that comes with dark winter evenings and the desire to hibernate. They are tired creatively. The juice is sluggish. The spark is failing to ignite quite as quickly as usual. I’ve had anguished emails from collaborators and former students lamenting the sudden dearth in ideas. My advice is simple and immediate, as I’ve been here so often myself: Relax, breathe, time to fill the stock cupboards and have some in-put as well as out-put…

How to in-put seems to depend as much on the kind of activity that has caused the depletion as what kind of personality or character we have.

Sometimes after long periods revising and editing, I long for visual stimulation and no language… I find myself wanting to take long walks by the sea, where my eye can carry on until the distant horizon, or if in a city, hours in art galleries (Rothko and Redon are incredibly refreshing for some reason).

When I’ve been storylining or devising, I have a sudden hunger for reading, but after teaching or working as a dramaturg in the studio, I want to lie down and listen to radio plays or audio books (one of favourites being Jim Norton’s reading of Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’). Sometimes I simply need to grab some friends and kick up my heels. I’ve found my productivity after a particularly raucous weekend with little sleep is surprisingly fruitful.

The central issue seems NOT TO PANIC…. Just accept there are times when we are tired – dull and jaded – and the remedy is finding the way(s) of getting your mojo back. We need to feed our imagination and creativity, as well as giving them moments of rest.