Tag Archives: books

What plot is – in a sentence

There are books written about plot – how to… what it is…. and a plethora of other elements. Yet I came across this today from Kate Mosse and it made me smile and go, yes….

Kate Mosse said you get to the end of a novel and say:

Of course! Because that’s what plot is – the hidden chain of cause and effect that takes a whole novel to explain.”

 

Writing is all about rewriting – but one thing at a time….

 

strikethrough

I was recently teaching a writing workshop in India, when one of the participants asked me about revising a draft. ‘Writing is all about re-writing,’ I said with great emphasis, ‘but only concentrate on one thing at a time.’  It may seem obvious, gnomic even, but it is a piece of advice so often overlooked. When revising work, focus on one thing at a time. The conversation that followed prompted me to go back, fillet and revise an earlier piece on this very subject.

Revising and redrafting a script can be a chaotic and ramshackle activity. After finally stumbling through to the end of an early draft, hopefully realising what the play or story is actually about (which may not be what we thought it was about when we set out…) it’s time to revisit and refine.

So often in my early experience and more recently, with those I dramaturg or mentor, revising can end up resembling the carnage of a kitten caught up in a ball of wool. It is not cute, pleasant, or the stuff of chocolate box covers, despite its many cliches. The combination of tender inexpert claws and fragmenting strands of wool is choking and potentially deadly. Likewise for the enthusiastic or inexperienced playwright whose imagined elegant and ordered combing through of the various strands of a script can result instead in a cat’s cradle of knots, unintentional dread-heads and a confused and despairing writer.

It’s easily done. I  begin reading a first draft and see some improvements I could make in the flow of dialogue between the characters, so mid-read I begin the revision, only to get distracted by the layout, which surely should be indented and double-spaced? (yes please). So I start doing that, but wait, surely that’s a saggy bit there in the middle and the stakes aren’t nearly high enough? So if I just reintroduce the character I cut halfway through the first draft and have her explain – but no, wouldn’t that just make her a cipher? And that’d be telling, not showing – which seems to be what’s happening in that section there – so maybe, maybe if I changed his motivation in that beat and therefore introduced rising action there, I could…. and there I am, hopelessly lost and demented, script dismantled about me, trussed up in my narrative threads like a turkey on Christmas morning.

We have to be ordered in our approach.

Try and work through the full draft, focusing on only one thing at a time. One read-through you may be looking at the journey of each individual character – and don’t try to do several in one reading to save time, as you won’t. Focus and comb through that strand, separating it from other considerations, and really pay attention. Then another read-through may be taking the dramatic temperature of the whole – the presence of tension or pace or rising action. Another read may be looking at effective dialogue – and so on.

It seems simple and obvious advice, yet somehow most of us manage not to absorb it. We try to be economical with time, but end up instead squandering it, giving ourselves headaches and small crises of confidence.

In redrafting, be specific and focus on only one thing at a time.

Be patient and calm.

Above all else, enjoy.

Your inner kitten will thank you for it.

20 Questions…. Samantha Ellis

To celebrate this weekend’s Fun Palaces and Agent 160 Theatre’s involvement, here’s one of my occasional ’20 Questions…’ blog, when I ask novelists, actors, burlesque performers, directors, non-fiction writers, poets, the creative great and the good to respond as they wish to a series of questions. It is my great delight to present Samantha Ellis and her wonderful, witty, inspiring responses….

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis

Samantha Ellis is a playwright and the author of the reading memoir How to be a Heroine; Or, What I’ve Learned From Reading Too Much. Her plays include Cling to me Like Ivy (Birmingham Rep and on tour, published by Nick Hern Books) and Sugar and Snow (BBC Radio 4), and she’s just had Starlore for Beginners and other plays on at Theatre 503. Goat and Monkey Theatre are producing her immersive Victorian thriller Anatomical Venus in 2015. Her short play This Time I Win is part of  Agent 160 Theatre Company’s Fun Palace, celebrating Joan Littlewood’s centenary 4 – 5 October 2014 at Wales Millennium Centre.  www.samanthaellis.me.uk

What first drew you to writing?

When I was really small I used to sit under the kitchen table where all the women in my family were cooking—my job was to pull the leaves off the parsley for tabbouleh—and listen to the grownups telling stories. The stories took me to another place—Baghdad, where my family are from—but also gave me nightmares (not everything that happened there was good). I was told to stop having such an overactive imagination. But then I read Anne of Green Gables. She also had an overactive imagination and she used it: to become a writer and tell stories of her own. So I thought I would too.

What was your big breakthrough?

In my twenties I was too scared to write the plays I wanted to write, and I was working as a journalist, which was not what I really wanted to be doing. I was researching a piece about the premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey and she just seemed so tough, so clear, so passionate, so angry, and I realised I wanted to write like that too, to give it everything I’ve got, to be brave. If I could. If I can.

What is the most challenging aspect of your work/process?

 Keeping thin-skinned enough to be open to ideas, and write from the heart, while also being thick-skinned enough to cope with the rest of it (meetings, rehearsals, reviews…)

Is there a piece of art, or a book, or a play, which changed you?

The book that rocked my world, more than any other, was Wuthering Heights. For years I tried to date Heathcliff. With predictable results.

What’s more important: form or content?

Both.

How do you know when a project is finished?

I never know! I wish I did.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. I like to know what the response is, and to try to learn from feedback if it’s useful. But I try not to get upset if it’s not super-positive (I don’t always succeed).

What advice would you give a young writer?

Stay curious, keep exploring, read everything, watch plays. And join a writers’ group or start your own—for honest criticism, for good advice, for the fun of being part of a gang, for drinking with on opening nights.

What work of art would you most like to own?

I just like looking at it.

What’s the biggest myth about writing/the creative process?

That it should be easy. That you just lie back on your chaise longue and inspiration happens…it doesn’t, unless you really, really work at it.

What are you working on now?

I’m working with you! I’m so glad to be part of the women playwrights’ collective Agent 160, and to be making a Fun Palace inspired by Joan Littlewood at the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff this weekend. My short play, This Time I Win, is about a woman discovering her inner (furious) feminist.

I’m also writing a book about Anne Brontë, called Take Courage (those were her amazing last words).

What is the piece of art/novel/collection/ you wish you’d created?

Wuthering Heights (both the book and the Kate Bush song). A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Lace. Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? A Thousand and One Nights. When Harry Met Sally. Moonstruck and, most recently, Pride, which made me think about how outsiders can come together to change the world. Oh & certain episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What do you wish you’d known when you were starting out?

I wish I hadn’t been so eager to please, to write “nicely”, to plane off all the rough edges, to write characters that were familiar and non-scary…it turns out the more odd and specific the writing is, the more people respond to it. The more I’ve written from my broken, messy, awkward, confused heart, the bigger and more truthful the work has seemed when it was finished…much better than trying to write something perfect and general and “universal”. And writing about people who aren’t often written about is a radical act.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To keep doing what I’m doing.

How do you tackle lack of confidence, doubt, or insecurity?

On my last day at university, a friend gave me a postcard of a Paul Klee painting and on the back of it he’d written out a bit of a letter Chekhov wrote to Olga Knipper, saying: “Art, especially the stage, is an area where it is impossible to walk without stumbling. There are in store for you many unsuccessful days and whole unsuccessful seasons: there will be great misunderstandings and deep disappointments… you must be prepared for all this, expect it and nevertheless, stubbornly, fanatically follow your own way.” I think about that all the time…that it’s not going to be easy, but you just have to keep going. I also do a lot of baking and go for a lot of long walks.

What is the worst thing anyone said/wrote about your work?

“Samantha Ellis has no humanity.” It was my first ever review, of a play I took to the Edinburgh Fringe when I was 21. My friends and I got the paper at a late night newsagent’s off Prince’s Street, and read it under an orange streetlight. I cried off all my mascara and then we got chips and vinegar and ate them as the dawn came up.

And the best thing?

I love that Lee Randall of the Scotsman called my book “a life-affirming feminist text”. But even better than that is if I write something my mum likes. She’s my biggest inspiration.

If you were to create a conceit or metaphor about the creative process, what would it be?

Wow…I wish I knew…

What is your philosophy or life motto?

I love the improvisation rule “yes and”; when someone makes an offer you should accept (yes) but also offer something new (and). I think it works for life as well as art.

What is the single most important thing you’ve learned about the creative life?

You don’t have to be perfect or finished or grown up to write; you can write out of rawness and uncertainty and doubt (in fact it’s probably better to).

What is the answer to the question I should have – but didn’t – ask?

My mum’s recipe for kichri (Iraqi Jewish rice & lentils) is the answer to most questions, I find… http://www.samanthaellis.me.uk/2010/04/lentils-are-for-consolation.html

Samantha Ellis's memoir of reading too much...

Samantha Ellis’s memoir of reading too much…

Links and further information on Samantha Ellis:

http://agent160theatre.blogspot.co.uk/

http://www.nickhernbooks.co.uk/Book/296/Cling-To-Me-Like-Ivy.html

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/cling-to-me-like-ivy/9697228/

http://www.amazon.co.uk/How-To-Be-Heroine-learned/dp/0701187514

http://www.hive.co.uk/book/how-to-be-a-heroine-or-what-ive-learned-from-reading-too-much/18159868/

On the dangers of believing in ‘writer’s block’…

I’ve just been asked by a magazine to give my thoughts on the terrible condition called writer’s block. I’m afraid I gave them short shrift.

I don’t believe in it. I’m frustrated when this excuse is peddled as a way of excusing poor preparation, or tiredness, or the need to do further research, or rest, breathe, look at the landscape or generally put more ‘food’ in the ‘cupboard’. We need stimulus, we need new experiences and sensations, we need change and to be active, and we also need to rest. This is natural, and I believe all humans need it. What I get perplexed about is when this malaise is wheeled out to explain why someone is not working. I have seen people grind to a halt (or not even start) and remain there for months and even years, saying ‘writer’s block’ as though that’s it, the end, and there’s nothing to be done but wait until it unblocks itself in its own sweet time, if ever….

This is not to be confused with burn-out, or lack of confidence, or an overly-active critic in the head who murmurs endlessly about how crap you are, or a host of other debilitating conditions we also have to get over in order to do what we do… And after blasting the poor editor with my thoughts about how we indulge notions of writer’s block to the benefit of a burgeoning self-help industry, but to the detriment of the profession (it adds to the fantasy of the tortured, suffering artist and lets lazy writers get away with it), I became superstitious and wondered if I was inviting hubris….

I have never had writer’s block as I see writing as a craft and profession, as well as one of the greatest joys and solaces of my life. In the past when I have failed to write it was because I needed rest, or stimulus, or discipline, or a few quiet nights in and less out on the tiles – I needed to research more, to plot better, to be more spontaneous, or less jaded – I just needed to get on and do the bloody work. I started seeing the difference between a writer and a would-be writer as the latter talks about it, endlessly, whilst the real thing just applies the seat of the pants to a chair and gets on with it.

When I teach I have a series of timed exercises I encourage writers to do at home to start afresh, or change direction, so instead of falling into that big hole in the manuscript they are making bigger by boring their eyes into it, they might find it less intimidating by approaching from a different place.

I have never found a problem with writing that couldn’t be solved by writing.

And then I found other writers felt similar to me – wonderfully successful and talented writers, whose words might make be feel less superstitious about inviting hubris when I write ‘I don’t get writer’s block.’ I can’t afford to come to a stop with a show going into tech’ in Taipei art Festival and another starting rehearsals in the UK this week, and a short monologue to write for Agent 160’s Fun Palace…

So over to Philip Pullman….

“Writer’s block…a lot of howling nonsense would be avoided if, in every sentence containing the word WRITER, that word was taken out and the word PLUMBER substituted; and the result examined for the sense it makes. Do plumbers get plumber’s block? What would you think of a plumber who used that as an excuse not to do any work that day?

The fact is that writing is hard work, and sometimes you don’t want to do it, and you can’t think of what to write next, and you’re fed up with the whole damn business. Do you think plumbers don’t feel like that about their work from time to time? Of course there will be days when the stuff is not flowing freely. What you do then is MAKE IT UP. I like the reply of the composer Shostakovich to a student who complained that he couldn’t find a theme for his second movement. “Never mind the theme! Just write the movement!” he said.

Writer’s block is a condition that affects amateurs and people who aren’t serious about writing. So is the opposite, namely inspiration, which amateurs are also very fond of. Putting it another way: a professional writer is someone who writes just as well when they’re not inspired as when they are.”

Fabulous. No-nonsense and to the point. Couldn’t have put it better myself. Now I’m off to write that monologue….

Talent is not the most important thing… William Faulkner.

“At one time I thought the most important thing was talent. I think now that — the young man or the young woman must possess or teach himself, train himself, in infinite patience, which is to try and to try and to try until it comes right. He must train himself in ruthless intolerance. That is, to throw away anything that is false no matter how much he might love that page or that paragraph. The most important thing is insight, that is … curiosity to wonder, to mull, and to muse why it is that man does what he does. And if you have that, then I don’t think the talent makes much difference, whether you’ve got that or not.”

 William Faulkner. University of Virginia, May 1957.

I’m currently deep in revision – not for an exam (or is it?), but reworking a would be novel. In the midst of this process, for solace and encouragement, I’ve been looking over my collection of quotations from the great and the good.

This Faulkner quotation, above, is refreshing, especially in the light of recent debates about talent and whether writing can be taught (and, yes, I’m talking about you, Hanif  Kureishi  http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/mar/04/creative-writing-courses-waste-of-time-hanif-kureishi)

Faulkner’s assertion seems both generous and also insightful – we can train and teach ourselves. It spurs me on to edit, to question, to wonder, to mull…to try and to try and to try until it comes out right.

Something to put on the wall above my writing desk, I think…

Finding the plot

“I guarantee you that no modern story scheme, even plotlessness, will give a reader genuine satisfaction unless one of those old-fashioned plots is smuggled in somewhere. I don’t praise plots as accurate representations of life, but as ways to keep readers reading.”
- Kurt Vonnegut

Narrative, character, motivation and action have been my lodestars of late. I’ve been developing a treatment for an independent television production company, and returning to the basics has been both a struggle and a joy. It feels like a very long time since I considered story arcs and chronological throughlines and even consequential action… The past few projects I’ve worked on in live performance have been using either non-western structures (Told by the Wind and Japanese Aesthetics of Quietude) or post-dramatic dramaturgies (Playing the Maids). It always takes time to shift between media and adjust to their different demands when you work, as I do, across genre, style, and form. I feel like I need to acclimatise, or pass through a decompression chamber, so varied are the atmospheres and their related demands.

So after spending months considering Yugen, the untranslatable Japanese aesthetic principle which means something akin to ‘the hint’, or ‘what lies beneath the surface’, I now have to make the components which create the drama visible, tangible, concrete. It goes against every fibre in my body. I’ve spent months invisibly structuring, and denying narrative closure to create what Ota Shogo described as ‘Passivity in art’ (no ‘meaning’ or narrative is foisted upon the audience – rather, they are invited to participate in the creation of it). As a warm-up I attend a Pitch Your Film workshop led by the very excellent Angela Graham. If anyone can shake me from my current aversion to formulaic structure and GOAL MOTIVATION CONFLICT, Angela can.

And she does, with great aplomb. I love her directness, her clear instructions and thorough understanding of shaping material for the particular medium of film. She cuts through my froth and resistance, giving me clear directions in what I need to do to mould this material for the specific medium and for the activity at hand: a Pitch.

I’ve always loathed ‘loglines’ (‘Jaws in space’ – Alien), and I resist the highly codified and formulaic structures required to give the essence of the drama, even whilst understanding the need of these for such an expensive and commercial enterprise. After much struggling the penny drops – a pitch is told in a three act structure – and with some satisfaction I find my own way to supply what’s required without ‘compromising’ on my writing style and storyline too much.

If that sounds snobbish, I certainly don’t mean it to be. It’s simply a description of this particular writer’s struggle across and between media and form and what each demands. After working as a dramaturg with collaborators on a co-created piece of live performance, it takes a while to activate and then strengthen certain creative muscles which haven’t been used for a while. My character-driven naturalistic action/reaction and then and then and then narrative skills had become flabby. It hurt to flex them, and it was immensely difficult to motivate myself into using my imagination in this way after such an absence – especially when I knew it was well-honed and strong from working in other ways. After Angela’s work-out and then some very serious activity alone, the muscle sprang back surprisingly quickly, and I again started to enjoy working this way. It’s all stuff I know and have encountered as a reader, as a student, as a writer, as a maker, it simply takes a while to re-remember it, to re-enter this particular atmosphere, and with all the equipment needed to breathe and prosper there.

 

 

 

On being quiet and humble….

After a week of deadlines, meetings, being in three countries, leading a weekend intensive workshop in Cork with Art/Works and presenting two public lectures, I’ve felt busy and screechy and visible and loud and far too bossy and efficient for my own good as a writer….

To lead a workshop and speak publicly, I need to be highly organised and to have plans a, b, c, d, and e, so I can respond to the natural dynamic of the group and create an experience which works for as many as possible. To speak publicly I need to know my subject inside out and back to front, I need to rehearse, deliver on time, and be ready for left-field questions. In other words, I need to be totalitarian in my organisation and preparation…. In order to write I need to be invisible and quiet and as eccentric in my process as I need to be. I’ve found when I’m starting out on a new project if I try to be efficient creatively, I lose spontaneity; the chaos I allow when initially writing paradoxically saves me time in the long run.

The past week has been superb and I’ve met the most remarkable people, but going from the quiet privacy of my solitary writing life to this hugely stimulating and enjoyable social public life reminds me again of the dichotomy and contradiction at the heart of my working life. To travel between both halves of my life feels like I need a decompression chamber, a sort of air lock between atmospheres I’ve seen in Sci-fi movies.

How necessary then was a calming email from my friend the poet Chris Kinsey this morning, sharing a quotation from Gwyneth Lewis:

Writers have to know when to be quiet and humble enough to let the unexpected come to them. If you conceive of language as an entirely willed cultural construct, then you miss its ‘otherness’.                                            Gwyneth Lewis. On Nature Writing.   www.newwritingpartnership.org.uk/fp/aspen/public/getFile-49.doc‎

My major thanks to both poets for sharing this wisdom with me. I’m off into my snowdrop-scattered garden to breathe and be quiet and humble, and invite the unexpected and otherness of language in…. Hope you can, too.