Tag Archives: novels

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



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…. Alison Jean Lester

Alison Jean Lester. LHLH PHOTO

Alison Jean Lester. LHLH PHOTO

I first met Alison Jean Lester at the Singapore Writer’s Festival in November 2014, when we immediately fell into a strong friendship around writing. I gave her a play to read, she gave me a book – the sublime Lillian on Life, which will be published in January 2015 (details, below). I was delighted when she agreed to participate in my ’20 Questions…’ series, when I ask writers of all descriptions, plus a plethora of other creatives (directors, composers, live artists, choreographers, novelists, burlesque dancers…) the same 20 questions, so we may read, compare and contrast responses, enjoy, and hopefully learn. 20 Questions: Alison Jean Lester….

What first drew you to your particular practice?

When I was 19 I moved to Beijing to study Mandarin for a year, and it was a huge shock to the system. I was so uncertain of my environment that I didn’t leave the dormitory for a week. Once I did leave, though, I became so full of accumulated impressions that I carried a notebook at all times and took notes. Then every two or three days I wrote those notes into a letter to my parents. Interpreting the world around me and trying to express it to others became I habit. I think that was the beginning. I’m pretty sure it was.

 What was your big breakthrough?

Of course getting an introduction to my agent was life-changing, but I know that if I hadn’t been introduced to the writer Alicia Erian (The Brutal Language of Love, Towelhead) way back in 1999, he probably wouldn’t have been as enthusiastic. I was focusing on writing short stories, and my brother, who was then an editor at The Atlantic Monthly, knew of a short story writer he thought I would enjoy. Alicia and I communicated via email and phone (she was in Brooklyn, I in Singapore), and she read every story I worked on. I’d email them to her, and she, incredibly generously, would print them, comment on them in pencil, and FedEx them back to me. Her comments were both very challenging and very encouraging, and she told me things I remember to watch out for when I write now. We also had this seminal conversation:

Alicia: Are you okay?

Me: Yeah. Why?

Alicia: Well, look at what you’re writing.

So the breakthrough was both an opportunity to work closely with a mentor, and an opportunity to consider how much pain I wasn’t admitting to feeling.

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

Finding the right objective correlative. (T.S. Eliot: “The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an ‘objective correlative’; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular emotion; such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience, are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.”)


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

What comes to mind is actually a movie: Peter Weir’s The Year of Living Dangerously. I was at college in Indiana when I saw it, and I remember being deeply stunned when I walked back out of the movie theater into the campus of cool gray limestone. First off, I’d never seen nor imagined anything like the Indonesia it portrayed. Neither had I seen or imagined anything like the character Billy Kwan’s activism, bravery and energy. And there’s a bit in the film where Mel Gibson’s character, neophyte journalist Guy Hamilton, gets told by his editor to stop sending such hyped-up emotional pap back home and start telling hardnosed stories. It was about Asia, and it was about principles, and it was also about writing. It caused me some internal plate tectonics.

 What’s more important: form or content?

This question is making my brain fizz.

 How do you know when a project is finished?

I know that when my mind spends more time on something I’m newly imagining than something I’m actively working on, it’s probably best to put the latter down for a bit. It might be finished then, but not necessarily.

Ask any published author how it feels to read old works, and they’ll tell you they’d like to do some rewriting if they could. We evolve. When we publish, the work can’t evolve with us. I’m not sure if that makes it ‘done’.

 Do you read your reviews?

My husband reads them first, and then we decide if I need to.

 What advice would you give a young writer/practitioner?

Two things. First, if you’re just at the ‘dipping a toe in’ moment, write what you feel like writing on the back of an old envelope or supermarket flyer. Don’t give it the power to make you judge it by the standards of a document right away. And second, don’t wait a long time before getting several opinions. One opinion is not enough. Show your work to a few people you respect. If they don’t agree on how your writing is going, you’ll be reminded that others can be very helpful, but they are only partial guides. Sift through their advice. But get advice.

 What work of art would you most like to own?

There’s a work called “Zetsu #8”, by Japanese ceramicist Nishida Jun, at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. It was described in an article by Sebastian Smee this way: “In a darkened and dramatically spotlighted room, three monolithic ceramic slabs are displayed chest high in separate vitrines. All three were fired as one massive piece. They subsequently fractured, and now coexist as silent but highly charged evidence of some untraceable past event. They are part freak geological accident, part gorgeous human ruin.” When I viewed it last summer, I burst into tears. It hurt my heart to look at. The feeling was no doubt heightened by having learned that Nishida had died at 28 in a massive kiln explosion in Bali.

A ‘gorgeous human ruin’ looks like an alien. An alien behind panes of glass that reveal it much too intimately.

I  wouldn’t like to own it. I’d like to be able to visit, though. Or to know it’s nearby, even if I didn’t visit.

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

I think it might help me to know the answer to this question.


 What are you working on now?

Promotion! I recently finished a draft of a second novel, and it is now in the hands of my editor. While waiting to see how much work she thinks still needs to be done, I’ll be doing what I can to raise the visibility of the first one. Part of my mind is on a third novel, though. I love thinking about it, and I’m making notes.

I’m also reading the novels-in-progress of two writer friends, to see if I can be of any help.

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

Mantel’s Wolf Hall and Vaughan Williams’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ are neck and neck.

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

That I was too simple to understand what the people who sent me rejection letters were saying, and I needed to read them a bit more slowly and not put them away so quickly.

 What’s your greatest ambition?

I’d like to see my book in people’s hands on public transportation. Wouldn’t that be great?! I’d like to see feeling on their faces as they read. But I think my greatest ambition, after living in an apartment for all my adult life, is to be in a position to buy a house that the whole family could reunite in. I’d like to be with my spread-out family more. I’d like a garden. I’d like a view of nature when I write.

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

I remind myself that whatever I write doesn’t have to be final. I take a trial and error approach, which embraces the existence of error and doesn’t make it a dirty word. I’ve done this often enough, successfully enough, to know that I can carry on and get to something that feels right if I keep trying. Also, I get opinions, and I see how I react to the opinions. I see what I’m willing to let go of, and what I fight to keep.

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

I sent a short story to a venerable editor who told me the voice wasn’t in the least organized. I didn’t know what he meant, because of course it all made sense to me. Eventually, though, I learned that all feedback is a gift. Negative comments are welcome. Sometimes especially welcome.

 And the best thing?

That it upset them.

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

Your brain is the worldwide web, and every day that you live you are uploading more video, more sounds, more conversations, more everything. When you create, you are doing a search that comes up with pages and pages of hits for you to luxuriate in. You surf around. You expand your search; you refine your search.

Why are we so surprised at what we can find on the web, when computers mimic the associative way our own brains work?

 What is your philosophy or life motto?

“Wait. There’s more.”

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


(Question: Does missing the end of your left middle finger make it difficult to type?)

Further information on Alison can be found at her website: http://www.alisonjeanlester.com


Lillian on Life will be published by Putnam in the United States on 13 January 2015 and by John Murray in the United Kingdom on 29 January.

Smart, poignant, funny, and wholly original, Lillian on Life is as fresh and surprising as fiction gets.

This is the story of Lillian, a single woman reflecting on her choices and imagining her future. Born in the Midwest in the 1930s, Lillian lives, loves, and works in Europe in the fifties and early sixties. Once she settles in New York, she pursues the great love of her life. Now it’s the early nineties, and she’s taking stock.

Throughout her life, walking the unpaved road between traditional and modern choices for women, Lillian grapples with parental disappointment and societal expectations, wins and loses in love, and develops her own brand of wisdom. Lillian on Life lifts the skin off the beautiful, stylish product of an era to reveal the confused yet vibrant woman underneath.

Advance Praise

“Lillian on Life is a quirky book with a very deep heart and soul. I found it full of life and full of wisdom.” – Erica Jong, #1 New York Times best selling author of Fear of Flying

“I absolutely loved Lillian on Life. It was a delight. The style of it so fresh and clever and subversive and there’s something very brave about it.” – Kate Atkinson, #1 New York Times best selling author of Life After Life

“In this remarkably mature first novel, Alison Jean Lester has channeled the worldly yet wistful elegance of Colette to portray an unforgettable heroine. Lillian’s provocative reflections on love, vanity, sexual intimacy, and surviving as an independent woman over half a century are deeply moving.” – Julia Glass, National Book Award Winner and author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale

“I’ll never forget Lillian on Life. Looking backward, she’s brutally honest about her needs, her lovers, her parents. Salinger could have invented her…Roth would have loved her…and so will you. A rare book, a little raunchy, but very rich and very real.” – Ilene Beckerman, author of Love, Loss, and What I Wore

Lillian+on+Life+UK+Cover“What a splendid book! By turns acerbic and warm, urbane and homespun, Lillian On Life is – like its protagonist – charming, funny and unabashedly smart. But as slender and enjoyable as this book is, it’s much more than simply a lark. Each elegantly compressed chapter leaves us luxuriating in thought: about the snippets of experience so vividly depicted, and about those that have been, with perfect art, left out.” – Leah Hager Cohen, author of The Grief of Others and No Book but the World

“A beautifully written, deft debut; edgy, elegant Lillian will stay with you.” – Adele Parks best selling author of Spare Brides and Husbands


In a remarkably confident debut, a woman’s life is revealed through fragments and meditations hinting at a life of great daring and unrealized dreams. … A slim novel that feels just perfect—each thought measured, each syllable counted, a kind of haiku to an independent woman. – Kirkus

If the thought of reading about a post-menopausal woman’s one-night stands doesn’t sound all too appealing, you’re not alone. Yet first-time novelist Alison Jean Lester manages to make such an untraditional narrative seem endearing—even illuminating. The 24 vignettes found in Lillian on Life leap through the eras (‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s), touching on Lillian’s lifelong reflections and hopes for the future. The novel is a cleverly executed feminist bildungsroman that you could easily share with your mother, sister, friend, or, probably most appropriately, life coach. – Yasmeen Gharnit, NYLON

Lester’s novel about a tenacious, well-traveled heroine of a certain age is replete with the profound and comical observations of a vivacious spirit. – O, The Oprah Magazine

Words from the Singapore Writer’s Festival 2014

I’m exhausted and exhilarated after a full weekend of workshops, panels, performances, readings, and discussions at the Singapore Writer’s Festival. Time is short, as I have work pending and things I should be doing other than writing a blog – so until I can reflect on the experience with more ease and depth, here’s a few comments from the past few days to get minds thinking and imagination igniting:

‘I don’t think people aspire to be an essayist, because there’s nothing ‘special’ about the essay. It’s the first form we’re taught at school when we’re about twelve or thirteen – it’s the first building block of education: we’re given facts and we write it up, as homework… And you have a career and now in middle age, you look back and go ‘Shit! It’s been thirty years of homework.’   Geoff Dyer.

On a panel about morality, Man Booker prize shortlisted novelist Karen Joy Fowler said:

‘The project of literature and art is to acknowledge other lives and extend tolerance and celebration about our differences….The project of art and literature is to extend the circle of empathy…’

In a masterclass I was fortunate to attend with Paul Muldoon (see previous blog), he concluded the session with:

‘What’s not possible if you honour the poem that wants to write itself, if you give it the chance? Allow it to have its way with you.’

There were many panels and discussions around the issue of gender and writing, and ‘Woman at the Crossroad’ – moments of profound change, after which nothing is the same again. Reflecting on such a moment in her own life, the novelist Lee Su Kim said, on giving up journalism to become a fiction writer:

‘I was a journalist and I realised I wanted to write paragraphs, not soundbites.’

On a sister panel, about the pleasures and burdens of being a female poet, Marilyn Chin woke up the audience in more ways than one with her statement:

‘I am not afraid of my womaness, nor the F word – Feminism. I am not afraid of race, or gender, or sexuality. I write the truth. I write with my bodily juices, because when I write, I should use everything I have, and it’s all woman.’

I will reflect more on the festival over future posts…. Meanwhile hope you enjoyed these morsels.

Why do you write? Understanding purpose.

Why do you write?

As a form of self-expression, an aide-memoire, to forge a possible career, to expose a wrong, to make money, because it’s fun, to try and leave a mark: ‘I was here’? Or perhaps to engage with the imaginations of others, to explore a central question about what it is to be human, to make others laugh, to meditate or self-analyze, to tell a really good story in order to entertain yourself in the making and hopefully others in the telling, you do it for fame? Or do you write to change the world, to save a life or community, to right a wrong, to ignite a campaign? Or is it simply a compulsion you can’t control, a question you need to answer, a private practice you share with no-one, an art form you wish to master, or a pleasurable means of passing time? Is it an ambition to achieve, an impulse to create, a desire to be ‘heard’, a business to forge? Is the reason you write a mixture of some of the above, or more likely, one I haven’t listed?

Knowing why we write (or create) is central to the practice, and often overlooked. Whether writing is a means to give thanks, or to remember, or to be economically independent, understanding the reason why we write – our purpose – is important and can lead to a more satisfying and successful output – (that’s ‘success’ defined in your own terms).

It’s a question I often ask participants at the start of a course, and one that saves time and energy in the long term. When we know the purpose for doing something, there is a clarity and understanding that can impact on the process. If someone in truth wants to be a bestselling romantic novelist, perhaps attending an experimental post-dramatic playwriting module isn’t immediately the best use of their time. If someone writes in the desire to reach an audience and to achieve a long-held ambition of being published, perhaps it’s time to send some of the poems out to publishers and accept writing is more than a private means of self-expression (this also works the other way). If writing is a means of personal growth, we can enjoy it more without the pressures of feeling we ‘ought’ to try and get published, or give a reading, or have a production. Being clear about the reason why you are writing is a way of being clear and truthful with yourself. It may sound obvious, but so many of us write and create in a fog. In my teaching and writing experience I’ve found we seldom ask ourselves what it is we like to read, what is it we want to write, what kind of writer we want to be, what our relationship is to our creativity….? Understanding this can effect the direction we take in future projects, saving energy and increasing our productive outcome. So go on and ask yourself these questions…

  • What kind of work do you enjoy reading/consuming?
  • Why do you write (or create, make, etc)?
  • What do you in truth hope to achieve?
  • What is standing in the way of you achieving the above?
  • What could you do to get closer to achieving this?
  • What kind of writing/making do you enjoy doing most?
  • Define ‘success’ in your own terms…..

There isn’t a template we all need to follow. There isn’t one career trajectory, just as there isn’t one reason why any of us write, or make, or create. I find the reason(s) for writing changes project to project and the knowledge of this shift encourages me to keep asking these questions, for the process and my connection to what I’m doing will therefore also change.

But understanding why we write or create allows some self-knowledge and this can lead to an adjustment in the direction we are taking, or inspire a new commitment to the practice, a freshness to our work and our relationship with it.  There are always benefits from increased wisdom.

Nothing about us without us…. Kaite’s books on disability for The Guardian

I responded in frustration to ‘The Ten Best Books on Disability’ in The Guardian last week:

‘I don’t believe you have to experience something in order to write about it, I wrote. ‘I’m a female playwright who writes male characters; I don’t advocate the old adage ‘write about what you know’. Writing is all about imagination, making things up, telling lies, entering the skin of a being who is similar to, but absolutely not ‘you’. It is audacious, limitless, empathetic, fictional… So why am I so frustrated at books written by predominantly non-disabled authors being chosen, yet again, as ‘The Ten Best Books About Disability’?

Maybe it’s because I’m tired of the impaired body being used as a metaphor for the non-disabled. Maybe I and many of my friends, family, and colleagues are fed up with the same old preconceptions and misrepresentations being peddled as ‘truth’, when these perspectives often have very little to do with the reality of living with a physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment.

 There has been a long tradition of assigning meaning to the impaired body. Since Aristotle, impairment has been used as a vehicle to explore notions of frailty, mortality, evil, pity, change – the human condition. What perhaps galls me and sends me hurrying for the right to expand this focus is the sense disability is consistently viewed from within the troublesome and limited stance of ‘normalcy’ – a place that gives little value to human variety, whilst often inviting prurient curiosity (TV reality ‘documentaries’ – the new freak shows? Discuss).

 There are certain disability narratives that have been circulating for millennia, and others since the Industrial revolution when humans became commoditised and valued according to their efficacy as a workforce.

 We are tragic but brave. We are evil personified. We are weak and pitiful, deserving of charity and pity. We are cheating wasters who contribute nothing. We are wise, with supernatural powers. We are kinky freaks up to no good. We are inspirational figures who ‘overcome’ our limitations.

 They’re all good storylines, and many can be viewed regularly in the media, like last year during the ‘Superhuman’ Paralympic coverage and currently in much of the spin around ‘scrounging’ disability benefit cheats. As a writer I can appreciate their pulling and lasting power. But I want something more – something which makes me perceive existence in a different way, which subverts and challenges notions of what it is to be human. And there is a rich body of this innovative, award-winning work already available, written by Deaf and disabled writers, which is why perhaps I am frustrated when more of this work isn’t included in round-ups of ‘The Best’ about disability.

Disability arts and culture in the US and the UK grew out of a civil rights movement, believing it is society with its ideologies, values, prejudices and love of inaccessible architecture which is disabling, not the impairment. This is a radically different stance from the majority of depictions in work by hearing or non-disabled writers identifying the character through diagnosis, putting the body at ‘fault’. Disability culture takes a different perspective, celebrating difference and informed by the phenomenological, embodied experience of being in a disabling world.’

I’m delighted to say I was commissioned to write a more user-friendly version of this for their book blog, which was published this morning on the following link. I’m encouraging others to add their books (I have many many more book titles to include which friends recommended. These weren’t included in the article owing to lack of room – but I shall add those on a different blog post).

Have a look and add your comments:


As a ps, can I say the final line of the Guardian post about ‘what books have opened your eyes?’ was not written by me. As a visually-impaired woman, I would not use such a comment based in normalcy – which is actually what my original feature was all about….