Tag Archives: books

starting to write…research, creating materials and scratching out the territory

It’s that exciting time – researching, imagining the territory, scratching out the first traces of what may develop into a character’s voice, journey, temperament, discoveries… I’m starting out on a new play, creating the anarchic, formless, sprawling mosaic of half-monologues, author’s questions and asides, indications of dynamic and interaction in snatches of dialogue, hastily written notes about place and action which eventually come together to create an image of the world of the play…

As a playwright, I’m not a planner. I know all the tricks and approaches, the theories and proposed practices. I’ve read the books, been to the seminars, taken and led the workshops. I know how it’s done and am known for my skills with dramaturgy and structure, yet my own process at the start of a new play is deliberately chaotic and to a planner’s eye, undisciplined. I give myself free rein to follow any wild association that pings in my head, to research in unlikely places so long as there is a chord resounding in me, to scrawl pages of notes and questions and one liners and ‘what ifs’ and scratching outs and a) b) c) d) versions of what may happen and whose emerging voice it may be and what this might really be about…

I read widely and eclectically – a medieval Welsh myth in translation, a misery memoir on abduction and a Victorian botanical primer (with delicious, delicate hand-painted illustrative plates) in the past four days alone. I’ve read about stamens and ovules; the flora and fauna of the New Forest; an American Survivalist’s blog on going off-grid and an Austrian’s guide for surviving trauma. I’ve seasoned this with playlists of new-to-me musicians and composers selected by my nephews and images from photographers’ blogs on remote places and abandoned buildings.

I’m immersing myself in whatever snags my interest or resonates for the perceived journey ahead. I’m not being selective or critical. I’m dipping in like a swift tips the surface of a lake, sampling, trying, flying on, keeping moving. I’ve learnt how seductive research can be. I know how it can engross you, consume you, and become either yet another form of procrastination, preventing you from getting down to the job in hand – writing – or it can weigh you and the project down, words research-heavy, too dense to soar.

I carry my diverse and immersive research lightly, although I abandon myself to its pleasures for a short time. This I think is where experience comes in – knowing when to stop both the task at hand and the whole process itself. It is also important to learn how to notate, to skim off what is of interest and potentially of use to your project, keeping always a little distance from what you are engaged in, however addictive. It is also essential to capture the thoughts that flit across your imagination before they dissipate in the air.

Have always a notebook or computer nearby. Don’t con yourself. You will not remember. Jot it down, and now, and see if the thought can be expressed in the character’s voice – the character not yet invented, nevermind realised – this is our paradoxical task but one which can’t be avoided or put off. Send away any inner critic and don’t worry how and what you write so long as you let the impulse flow through you and into the pen/keys; shake yourself out of research pleasure, which ironically often manifests in idleness. Try shaping into scrawled notes that shapeless thought clouding your mind. Get it down and keep moving – you can come look at it again, later. Travel fast, travel with curiosity and an open mind, travel well.

More on my process of starting to write will follow….


Start now.

Start now. Start from where you are. Don’t wait for the muse, or the magical moment, or the light shining on the lake viewed from the perfect writing spot you’ve never looked for but just know it’s out there and when found (although you don’t look) will make everything fall into place and the words onto the page or screen. Start now. Don’t wait for a new book or computer or pen which will make the work effortless. The work is hard, always is, always has been, always will be, although there may be those few moments when  the components line up like the mechanism in a chiming clock and the words are precise and striking: a state of grace, to be savoured. But mainly work will be filled will struggle and frustration and disappointments where there is never enough time or quiet or space to formulate ideas, never mind actualise them. And despite the rejections and the occasional sense of failure, we must keep on, for this is what we were made to do – to write, to express, to create, to imagine, to communicate, to think, to explore, to elucidate, to embody. And never forget how fortunate we are to be doing what we do.

It’s New Year and that time for new beginnings or encouraging words. Here’s more from Debbie Millman:

I recommend the following course of action form those who are just beginning their careers or for those like me who may be midway through: heed the words of Robert Frost. Start with a big fat lump in your throat. Start with a profound sense of wrong, a deep homesickness, or a crazy love sickness and run with it. If you imagine less, less is what you undoubtedly deserve. Do what you love and don’t stop until you get what you love. Work as hard as you can, imagine immensities, don’t compromise, and don’t waste time. Start now. Not 20 years from now, not two weeks from now. Now.

Look Both Ways: Illustrated Essays on the Intersection of Life and Design. Debbie Millman. Quoted on http://www.brainpickings.org

Happy new year and courage, energy and fortitude to all…..

On Writing….. David Rhodes

‘I’ve been writing since about the age of fourteen. Somewhere around that time I discovered that herding words into stories often gave rise to strangely satisfying states of mind – agitated, but satisfying. Maybe I was a little like a herding dog. That first glimpse of a pasture with bunched-together sheep had a different effect upon me than, say, a companion dog that looks at the same pasture and thinks ‘Sheep, who cares?’ As individuals we seek out activities we can lose ourselves in, and those activities, paradoxically, reveal things we couldn’t otherwise know about ourselves.’   David Rhodes. Writer of ‘Driftless’

As a farmer’s daughter, the herding metaphor about writing was very attractive and held some resonance….

I’m in the wintry midwest of America and recently discovered this extraordinary Wisconsin writer, publishing his first book in three decades, following a motorcycle accident when he became physcially disabled.

You can read ‘Driftless’, David Rhodes’ first book in thirty years at:http://www.amazon.com/Driftless-David-Rhodes/dp/1571310681/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1388082386&sr=1-1&keywords=driftless+by+david+rhodes

20 Questions… Clare George.

Continuing my series of questions about creativity and process with writers, choreographers, poets, directors, sculptors, theatre practitioners, novelists, burlesque performers and other artists…. Novelist Clare George takes the helm. I first met Clare in Exeter some years ago when she was writer in residence, co-ordinating a large project supporting and guiding writers. I’m delighted to introduce her response to 20 Questions…

Clare George

Clare George

Clare George is the author of two novels, The Cloud Chamber (Sceptre, 2003) and The Evangelist (Sceptre, 2005). Having completed a Masters in Creative Writing at University of East Anglia, she had a short story, Snapshot, broadcast on Radio 4 in 2006. She taught creative writing at City University London from 2007 to 2009, and was Writer in Residence at Exeter University from 2009 to 2011, where she led an outreach programme for writers across the South West exploring visions of the future. She is currently working on a third novel.

What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

–       When I was a pre-schooler we lived in a small village where a library van visited once a week. It was the most magical place. The first story I remember making up, long before I was able to write it down, was about a girl who went into the library van and opened the most beautiful and exciting book in the world. It came to life around her. That’s still why I write.

What was your big breakthrough?

–       Getting an agent. The first book I sent her wasn’t published, and neither was the next one, but the third was, and the fourth, and she’s still my agent now.

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

–       Starting a novel. So much material is needed, and it takes so many false starts: in the case of my most recent novel, Things I’ll Never Tell You, about twelve years’ worth.

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

–       Go Dog Go by P D Eastman, which was my favourite book in that library van. 

41YMQHTM4SL._SY445_What’s more important: form or content?

–       Content is everything. Form is everything. The best times writing are when they stretch one another. But in fiction there’s also story, which crosses the boundary between the two and is more mysterious than either. A story that gives and denies, enlarging our wants and our expectations, is a devastating thing.

How do you know when a project is finished?

–       At the point when my improvements start making it worse.

Do you read your reviews?

–       Damn, yes! I think the writer who doesn’t read his/her reviews is an admirable creature from a slightly different species to my own.

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

–       Read, read, read, read, read. But only for fun. And get out more.

What work of art would you most like to own?

–       Newton by Eduardo Paolozzi, outside the British Library. Luckily, I do own it, sort of.

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

–       The attitudes I most dislike are the exclusive ones, such as that a writer needs to be a particular type of person, or that ‘literary’ works are intrinsically superior to those written within a genre.

4108H0N4KYL._SY445_What are you working on now? 

–       I’m trying to get started on a novel about a telepath. It started out as an exercise I set myself in using free indirect style after writing the last two novels in the first person, and has gone on to become an exploration of how dysfunctional it is to be constantly trying to examine people from the inside, which I find can get in the way of actual living.


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

–       Ode to the West Wind, by Percy Bysshe Shelley. I’m a Romantic.

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

–       I wish I’d had a Kindle, so that I didn’t have to be confined to British tastes in books. I got reader’s block for a long time.

What’s your greatest ambition?

–       To become a better writer and enjoy myself while trying.

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

–       I think patience is the answer. I’m not very patient.

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

–       People are entitled to their own opinions. But one review of The Evangelist pointed out that I’d used the wrong terminology when my narrator talked about someone ‘getting a hat trick’ instead of ‘taking a hat trick’ (or the other way around). Getting it wrong was a betrayal of my cricket-loving narrator.

And the best thing?

–       A review of The Evangelist in The Independent on Sunday: ‘Few authors possess a grain of Clare George’s intelligence, even fewer manage to splice a regularly amusing, often moving narrative with ideas of the range exhibited here.’ I quote it whenever possible. Especially on the school run.

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

–       It’s like drugs. The side-effects are horrible but the highs are irresistible. You can give up but you will never be free.

What is your philosophy or life motto?

–       Try really hard. Try not to try so hard.

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

–       I’m not sure there’s much of a distinction between the creative life and other types of life. I find that I have at least as much in common with those pursuing other disciplines for their own sake, such as science or sport or even business.

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

–       What is actually happening to our brains when we consume stories? I don’t have the answer, but it would be great if there was someone out there working on it because I WANT TO KNOW.

Further information about Clare and her books at:

Anne Lamott on writing…..



In general…there’s no point in writing hopeless novels. We all know we’re going to die; what’s important is the kind of men and women we are in the face of this.

-Anne Lamott

A wonderful quotation to focus the mind….

On Writing…


“Words should be looked through, should be windows.

The best words are invisible.”

Robert Francis


I’m grateful to my friend the poet Chris Kinsey for this wonderful provocation about writing, words, their impact, and the challenge of the skill required to be effective.

20 Questions: Beatrice Hitchman

I’m delighted to have novelist Beatrice Hitchman answer my ’20 Questions’ just a few days before the paperback publication of her debut, Petite Mort, and its serialisation on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Woman’s Hour’. We met in the South West of England two years ago when both working on projects, and it is the greatest pleasure to witness her success with her first novel, and have her participate in this questionnaire on process and creativity….

20 Questions….. 

Beatrice Hitchman. Photo: Sarah Lee.

Beatrice Hitchman. Photo: Sarah Lee.

Beatrice Hitchman was born in London in 1980. She read English and French at Edinburgh University and then completed an MA in Comparative Literature. After a year living in Paris, she moved back to the UK, trained and worked as a documentary film editor, also writing and directing short films. Petite Mort is her debut novel. It was longlisted for the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013, is shortlisted for the Festival du Premier Roman de Chambery 2014, and has been adapted as a Radio 4 Woman’s Hour drama featuring Honor Blackman.

What first drew you to your particular practice (art/acting/writing, etc)?

Realising that the Care Bear cartoon episodes I wanted to watch didn’t exist yet. I had a serious conversation with myself and realised that even though I was only five, it was down to me to write them.

What was your big breakthrough?

Getting published by Serpent’s Tail.

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


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

I think everything you read sandpapers you down somehow.

What’s more important: form or content?


How do you know when a project is finished?

The deadline opens under my feet.

Do you read your reviews?

Yes. It helps you to cross the gap between what you think you’ve written, and what you might actually turn out to have written.

What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

You are not a beautiful and unique snowflake, but you work is: protect it. As a general principle, give more time to advice that encourages you to take risks. Ignore the blah-blah-blah and the loudmouths; the people who talk the most about writing may be the ones who love it least. Learn not to be afraid of being tired.

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

I think it’s a myth that you should be able to write anywhere.

What are you working on now?

A story about a whale. I’m enjoying the scenery very much. And the fact I can hold my breath for an hour…

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

Beyond Black by Hilary Mantel.

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

Time’s a-wasting. You don’t have to wait until your thirties to have the confidence to take your own writing seriously.

What’s your greatest ambition?

To create the perfect thing.

Cover of Beatrice Hitchman's debut: Petite Mort

Cover of Beatrice Hitchman’s debut: Petite Mort 

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

Strike out with firm, broad strokes, chin held high.

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

It’s never so bad when people talk about your work; you think, well, at least they care enough to talk.

And the best thing?

‘It’s the real thing.’


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

This isn’t mine, but it’s the best way I’ve heard to describe it: it’s like having a bath permanently running upstairs:

What is your philosophy or life motto?

I really don’t have a clue what I’m doing, but that’s OK because I really don’t think anybody else does either….do they?

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

It’s not a choice.

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

I wouldn’t change a thing.  

–    –    –    –

For further information on Beatrice, her novel, and the radio four serialisation, please go to:




More in praise of Alice Munro and the short story

After the popularity of Saturday’s blog on the short story, I wanted to add a few more links. The always excellent brainpickings has Alice Munro on the secret of a great short story: http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2013/10/11/alice-munro-on-stories/

Earlier this Autumn, Literature Wales, Swansea University and the Rhys Davies Trust held a conference on the short story, with everyone from Edna O’Brien, Tessa Hadley, to Will Self in attendance. I was unable to attend, but am grateful for the coverage from the excellent Wales Arts Review, Volume 2, issue 23, which I highly recommend: http://www.walesartsreview.org/wales-arts-review-volume-2-issue-23/

This edition includes interviews with Rachel Trezise and Will Self; Patricia Duncker, Stevie Davies, Alison Moore and others on their favourite short stories;  a revisit of classics such as two of my personal favourites, Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper and William Trevor’s wonderful The Ballroom of Romance. The recent announcement that William Trevor has been awarded The Charleston Trust/ University of Chichester inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award in Short Story Writing seems to affirm this sometimes overlooked form is having its time in the limelight. Let us enjoy…

In praise of short stories – “hand grenades of ideas.”

Short fiction seems more targeted – hand grenades of ideas, if you will. When they work, they hit, they explode, and you never forget them.  Paolo Bacigalupi.

It has been a stupendous week for short fiction. Today’s blog is in celebration of Alice Munro being awarded the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature, and Sarah Hall winning the BBC National Short Story Prize. It also seems to be a year for women short fiction writers, for all on the National Short Story Prize shortlist were female.

For me a page of good prose is where one hears the rain. A page of good prose is when one hears the noise of battle…. A page of good prose seems to me the most serious dialogue that well-informed and intelligent men and women carry on today in their endeavour to make sure that the fires of this planet burn peaceably.   John Cheever.

Munro is the thirteenth woman to have won the award since its inception in 1901, and didn’t expect to win, partly because of what could be seen as an undervaluing of the form. On winning, she said “I would really hope that this would make people see the short story as an important art.” 

I remember a time, until quite recently, when it seemed that the short story was in decline, or certainly out of fashion. The genre seemed to be in free-fall, and there were campaigns to ‘Save Our Short Stories’. Publishers were blamed for not offering collections, and they in turn criticised the reading public for not buying and so investing in the form. With today’s burgeoning list of short story competitions, some of them extremely high profile, like the BBC’s national offering and The Sunday Time’s EFG private bank award, the situation seems to have changed. But as Ursula Le Guin states so clearly, below, we need readers:

The unread story is not a story; it is little black marks on wood pulp. The reader, reading it, makes it live: a live thing, a story.
 Ursula K. Le Guin

I have been enthralled by a whole range of short stories it has been my great fortune to have read during the past eighteen months: Work by my favourites Kevin Barry and Sarah Hall, but also Helen Simpson, Jon Gower, Matthew Francis, Claire Keegan, Lavinia Greenlaw, Edith Pearlman, Ali Smith… the list could go on. It seems robust and innovative as a form, and I’m excited that publishers, including small presses like my local publishers, Cinnamon Press, are championing both the writers and the form.

In an article in The Guardian ‘We Need a Story Laureate’, Sarah Hall gives an overview of the state and general health of the short story in the UK, “..if not gloriously ascendant in Britain, then airborne and at reasonable altitude,” she says, in a recommended read: http://www.theguardian.com/books/2013/oct/11/sarah-hall-short-story-laureate

So let us celebrate this week’s achievements, and support the form through being good readers as well as writers!

“For the source of the short story is usually lyrical. And all writers speak from, and speak to, emotions eternally the same in all of us: love, pity, terror do not show favourites or leave any of us out.”  Eudora Welty, On Writing.

To hear extracts from recordings of the BBC shortlisted stories, please go to: http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0079gw3

For further information on UK short story competitions, deadlines, and where to get the forms, go to: http://www.booktrust.org.uk/books/adults/short-stories/prizes/

Alice Munro wins the 2013 Nobel Prize for Literature: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/entertainment-arts-24477246

Thresholds, ‘the international home of the short story’ has links to short stories you can read online, including work by Kevin Barry, Helen Simpson, O Henry and others at: http://blogs.chi.ac.uk/shortstoryforum/9019-2/

Write what you would love to read.

A very simple yet profound thought occurred to me after coming across a quotation by Brian Eno online: Write the book you would love to read; the play you would love to see:

‘My interest in making music has been to create something that does not exist that I would like to listen to. I wanted to hear music that had not yet happened, by putting together things that suggested a new thing which did not yet exist.’

Brian Eno. 

When I teach or mentor young in career writers, I always encourage them not to try and jump on whatever bandwagon is popular at that time. Those projects were developed eighteen to twenty-four months earlier and anything developed now will be passe and out of date. It’s always better to follow your own interests, your own passion.

The Eno quotation appeals to me for its obvious but clear-cut truth: be yourself, develop your own voice, style, or form, rooted in your personal taste, skills, imagination and predilections. Initiate, don’t imitate. Strive to be innovative.