Wednesday, 3 February 2016

For Strange Eyes only: The Writing Process & Forward Assist

One aspect of  my workshops with Avril Joy – including the present six week sequence for military veterans with Forward Assist – is sharing our creativity, especially our writing.Our customary approach is to work in special separate bound notebooks.  

Our customary approach is to work in special separate bound notebooks.  The work in these notebooks is entirely private and I advise the writers to keep it so - especially from friends, lovers and relations whose appraisal will be informed by the relationship, not the work. Writing from the heart is risky and ultra-personal and paradoxically for strange eyes only.

Within the workshop writers may choose to share their immediate writing by reading it out loud.  This is an easy ask, as so much of the writing is original and accomplished. Nobody is obliged to do this, but we’ve found some people quite pleased to share. Even so, we respect writers who choose not to do so.The great advantage of sharing by reading out is that your tone of voice, your breathing and your pauses bring natural order and syntax to what - on the page -  may appear scribbly and barely readable, having  charged forward delightfully in the creative process.

So we will say to them:

‘... if you want to share your writing more widely to be read by strangers this is what you need to do:

When you have a good lump of work in your notebooks  transcribe this original writing onto a computer. In this process you  will incorporate full stops, paragraphs and punctuation as well as quite naturally making amendments to your prose. This is effectively a primary edit which will bring form and order to your splurge of ideas, narratives, memories and stories. It will make it accessible to your stranger- reader be she editor agent or other advisor.  

Laying your work out in an accessible fashion is an important part of this process. (See below for layout suggestions.)

It is important only to share work on the page with all this in mind. The private pages of your notebooks – hot, creative and original as they are - are for your eyes only. They are more original than if you had started your process on the screen. They are private stuff, the golden egg that will remain at the core of your long-term writing inspiration. There is no short-cut to achieving the printed version, fit to share with strangers,

There is no short-cut to achieving a final printed version, fit to share with strangers,
One good outcome is that when you finally get to the printed version of your original notebook pages is that you will read it with the eyes of a stranger-which is so very good for the self-editing process.

And this will send you back to your notebook to create further exciting, original elements to your writing, whatever form it takes/

Syntax and Layout Suggestions

Things to think about as you go on writing and editing,

·       Think about breaking over-long sentence into two while retaining the meaning.
·       New idea, new location, new story element, change of person – all these often demand a new paragraph.
·       In writing dialogue keep in mind, ‘new person, new paragraph’.
·       Don’t worry if the paragraphs are short. This creates white space on the page which allows your narrative to flow forward.

Important aspects of layout to help the reader read your document easily:

  • ·       Use at least 12 point typeface. 14 point is OK.
  • ·       Double line spacing,
  • ·       Good margins.
  • ·       Only ever use one side of the page,

        Happy writing! Wx 

Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Dialogue in the short story: Top Tips for Forward Assist

After our great session last with ex-military writers from the Forward Assist organisation,  I am looking forward to working alongside Avril Joy  this afternoon in our second workshop.

Today we will be focusing on how to build a character in one's fiction.  

This reminded me of a piece I wrote for my blog  about dialogue and how it works in building character. I'll be sharing it with the writers this afternoon but I thought you also might be interested in it. 

'...As I worked my short story collection called Forms of Flight  I reflected on the crossover skills between the long and short writing forms. One aspect of this reflection was the role of  dialogue in fiction.

Dialogue is hot and hard and it challenges the reader not just to imagine, but to hear different voices, It allows us to witness aggression, seduction, passion and anger and the nature of relationships without having to be told that this is happening. What is happening hits you in the face.·      Dialogue has its part to play on both long and short fiction. It presents very common problem for new short story writers and novelists 

Look at the following writers. What do you witness happening here?

Look at  Why Don’t You Dance? by Raymond Carver  and observe  his ability to imply risk and jeopardy through what seems like simple dialogue.

…He sat down on the sofa to watch. He lit a cigarette, looked around, flipped the match in the grass.
The girl sat on the bed. She pushed off her shoes and lay back. She thought she could see a star. ‘Come here, Jack. Try this bed. Bring one of those pillows.’ she said.
'How is it? ‘he said.
'Try it' she said.
He looked around. The house was dark. 'I feel funny,' he said.  'Better see if anyone’s home.'
She bounced on the bed. ‘Try it first,' she said...

Or look at Daphne du Maurier’s Don’t Look Now 
where she uses dialogue to set the tone of mystery, threat and personal grief near the beginning of the short story. . 

…‘They’re not old girls at all,’ she said. ‘They’re male twins in drag.’ Her voice broke ominously, the prelude to uncontrolled laughter, and John quickly poured some more Chianti into her glass.
        ‘Pretend to choke,’ he said, ’then they won’t notice. You know what it is – they’re criminals doing the sights of Europe, changing sex at each stage. Twin sisters here in Torcello. Twin brothers tomorrow in Venice, parading arm in arm across the Piazza San Marco. Just a matter of switching roles and wigs.’
         ‘Jewel thieves or murderers?’ asked Laura
          ‘Oh murderers definitely. But why, I ask myself, have they picked on me?’
           The waiter made a diversion by bringing coffee and bearing away the fruit, which gave Laura time to banish hysteria and regain control. …

In my story Sharpening Pencils I use dialogue to show the uncomfortable contact between a shy girl and her equally shy tutor. I think.

...The girl stood back from the painting and surveyed it. Mrs Forrest came to stand beside her. She said. ‘I do like the way you manage to convey both humanity and abstraction, Miss Wintersgill. You hold onto the intimate relationship while making the meaning universal.’
The girl undid and redid her ponytail, filling the air again with the smell of turpentine. Mrs Forrest contemplated the thought of turpentine infusing the curly tumbling hair. Then she said. ‘I can indeed draw quite well. They told me so at the Slade, many years ago.’
‘You were at the Slade?’ 
Mrs Forrest laughed. ‘So I was. As I say, it was many years ago. I worked alongside people who now are what thy call household names.’
The girl coughed. ‘It must have been hard work there.’
Mrs Forrest noticed the accent for the first time. Somewhere from the West perhaps. She lifted her shoulders and sighed. ‘For the first year all I did, dear, was sharpen pencils, clear workspaces. I did draw at night. That eventually earned me my place. My night drawing earned me a place there.’ She paused. ‘Not that I was very good.’
‘It’s hard to think of you just sharpening pencils, Mrs Forrest.’
Mrs Forrest smiled showing discoloured teeth. ‘Of course I watched what they did and in my little room at night I tried it all out myself.’ She looked around. ‘Just as, perhaps, you do here, Miss Wintersgill, in the dark of night. But then you are so much more original.’ She backed away then, fading out of the room and closing the heavy door behind her with a click. Outside she untied Koppy and let him run through the darkened parkland around the house, barking now and then when he scented prey... 

And in this story, The Little Bee,  I have tried  to show the world of a little girl observing the complex and ambiguous world around her. Clearly here I am unable to resist contextualising the dialogue in the larger narrative. But perhaps there is room for that in the wide world of the short story, I hope so.

... Amalie put a hand on my shoulder and I stood up before her. ‘And your Mama was very beautiful, ma p’tite. I knew about that. Hadn’t I been her dresser in the Theatre de Varietés? The sheer beauty of your mama drew great applause.’
My father giggled then. ‘But unfortunately she could never remember a line. Not a single line. The manager who had been intoxicated with her became embarrassed and employed beauties with more brain and better memories. Her friend Josephine was one of these.’
Amalie suddenly scowled at him. ‘But after all when you met her, Monsieur, you fell in love.’
He sighed very deeply. ‘So I did, Amalie. So I did.’ And with this he laid his head on the stout oak table and fell asleep, snoring and snuffling within minutes.
My gaze met Amalie’s and - both embarrassed and amused - we started to laugh. She hugged me tight and I could smell the meat and garlic on her. And my father’s fruity cigarettes. Still laughing, I helped Amalie to trundle the trolley through to the dark back places of the house, where her two nieces, who couldn’t speak French at all, washed the pots and dishes and cleared the kitchen for the following day.

As always you should make your own judgement about what would work for you.

And have a go at these practices:
- Abstract some dialogue from an existing short story – separate it on a page – and decide what you are doing here. Can you cut it back to just what is spoken? Can you implant more meaning, enhance the tone, and expose the difference in the way people speak by what they say?

- Take a one line encounter from your story  and render it into dialogue which gives us more of the different lives of the speakers without telling us facts.

- Take an overheard fragment of the conversation of strangers 
and create a whole incident though invented dialogue



Happy writing!


Thursday, 7 January 2016

From My Blue Notebook: The Danish Girl, Adam and Eve and the psychology of Gender.

 Having been in deep hibernation-mode for the last month I feel I must be waking up, as I am sitting here writing my first post for  a whole month. Perhaps it was yesterday morning’s battle to reduce our brilliant tree into branches and overflowing carrier bags that cleared the air for me.

Halleyluya for 2016. That’s what I say!

Lester Ralph's illustration  for the fist volume edition
of  Mark Twain's Eve's Diary 

One Christmas treat for me was a trip to the movies to see the currently trendy Danish Girl. Since then, in this house the subject of the complexities and ambiguities of gender identity has joined in with - cooking-with-deep-flavour, the scientific Periodic Table,  the Labour-non shuffle, the flooding of Great Britain and the Christmas  council’s cock-up of the collection of the black and green bins - as a recurring subject of conversation. I suppose  all this is about being a woman.  

Speaking of which, looking through my Blue Notebook on
The Blue Notebook
New Year’s Day, I came across notes I made when re-reading my favourite very-wise Ursula le Guin talking about Mark Twain’s witty take on the legend of Adam and Eve.

Le Guin, in her beautifully written evaluation, reveals the elements in Mark Twain’s tale that has resonances in our lives today and our concerns regarding the gender roles.

Ursula comments: ‘(in Mark Twain’s Tale ).. It is not
Adam’s superior psychology of brains or brawn but his blockish stupidity. He does not notice, does not listen. Is uninterested, indifferent, dumb. He will not relate to her, she must relate herself in words and actions to him and relate him to the rest of Eden. He is entirely satisfied with himself as he is; she must adapt her ways to him. He is immovably fixed at the centre of his own attention. To stay with him she must agree to be peripheral to him, contingent, secondary. The degree of social and psychological truth in the picture of life in Eden is pretty considerable...’

The Danish Girl is brilliantly acted and beautifully shot and takes a sensitive and nuanced approach on the tragic, true story on which it is based.  

Later, as I watched the press and on the screen the hard-line opinions of proponents and opponents of the transgender agenda my mind leapt back to Ursula’s conclusions about about Adam and Eve.  He is entirely satisfied with himself as he is; she must adapt her ways to him. He is immovably fixed at the centre of his own attention.

Interestingly we would need a new pronoun to make this statement apply to one rather beautiful, highly articulate transgender person (who objected to being certificated at her birth as a girl) sitting there in the studio.

Ursula, I think, would have smiled, alongside Mark Twain.

The Book

To read, perhaps?

The Wave in the Mind by Ursula K Le Guin (2004)
The Diaries of Adam and Eve by Mark Twain 

New Edition 2015
The Danish Girl by David Ebershoff


And the Film 

Monday, 21 December 2015

From my blue notebook; The Sublime Susan Sontag on Structure.

I was having a pre-Christmas writing room sort -out when a book by Susan Sontag fell from my writing bookshelf open at her essay on Dostoyevsky’s writing.

Perhaps you know,  as you read  LifeTwiceTasted, that when I’m not writing my novels, I’m pondering the mysteries of the writing process as it occurs book by book.
My Blue Notebook

I  am in the middle of writing an exciting new novel  which – at present- is told from a single eccentric point of view. But in the back of my mind is the thought that I might eventually wish to incorporate other perspectives to deepen and thicken the narrative.  This is both a creative and a technical challenge for any writer. And then, as if responding to my thoughts, Susan Sontag’s book falls from the shelf open at her essay on Dostoyevsky’s writing. I read the page 
. I read the page eagerly and copy it into my blue notebook where I note words and ideas that inspire me.

Here are the sublime Susan Sontag’s words about the structural energy in rendering points of view.

…. ‘Summer in Baden - Baden’ is unified by the ingenuity and velocity of its language, which moves boldly, seductively between the first and the third person – the doings, musings, memories of the narrator (‘I’) and the Dostoyevsky scenes (‘he’, ‘they’ ‘she’) between past and present. But this is not a unitary present any more than it is a unitary past. (Submitting) to the undertones of remembered themes, passions from earlier moments in his life, the narrator, In the present, summons up memories of his past…

Sontag’s lucid de-construction of this complex element of narration certainly inspires me to plunge back into the process of my novel with ‘ingenuity and velocity.’ 

It could – as I hope it will – make this my best novel yet.

Happy holidays to all my reading, writing and creative friends out there in the world. With this wish comes a profound hope for a peaceful world in 2016 where the self-styled warriors of every culture turn their swords into ploughshares, their bullets into bees, their bombs into poems and their drones into butterflies.

D's Christmas House 

Friday, 11 December 2015

A personal message about our free Forward Assist Workshops

Beginning Wednesday 13 January  Avril Joy and I are looking forward to leading a FREE six-week writing group in Durham City (Details below**) for the  veteran's charity Forward Assist*

All ex-forces personnel - men and women - are welcome to join us.  
Let us know if your are interested, Contact Neil:  
Phone: 0191 294 3539 Mob: 0783 469 9911 
Or Email:

A personal message from Avril and me 
about the workshop:


We believe we are all writers at heart. Perhaps you have a story you would like to tell, maybe you keep a diary, write letters and e mails, enjoy reading, or maybe none of these. Many of us have not written anything since school. Many of us are put off by worries about our spelling and grammar.
      We are not concerned about grammar or spelling, these are easily fixed. What we hope to do is inspire you to write in whatever shape or form your writing may take. We believe that writing has many rewards. It’s a source of great fun and pleasure and can be a positive force in our lives
   It is our aim to make the workshops fun, rewarding and a safe place in which to work and express ourselves. We will share tips and ideas with you to get you started. We will not necessarily focus on aspects of your war service, what you write about will be a matter of choice for you. We will begin by simply making lists and talking about keeping a notebook - both the list and the notebook are great tools for us writers. We will share our notebooks with you and talk about our work including poetry, the short story, how a novel is written and writing a blog. We will read the work of other writers and use this as inspiration for our own writing.
      If you’re interested in writing or simply curious and want to know more then why not join us on Wednesdays 4pm to 6.45pm, 13th January to 17th February  2016  at Clayport Library Durham, we’d love to see you there.
(Transport can be booked in advance if required. Check with Neil.)

* The Forward Assist Veteran Charity provides advice, information and guidance, 'life changing' projects and opportunities to former servicemen and women. See ... 

** Our workshop will be take place at Durham Clayport Library, Millennium Place, Durham City  over a 6-week period commencing Wednesday 13th January 2016, with the final session on Wednesday 17th February 2016.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Advice to A Daughter: Catching Thoughts Like Spider’s Webs.

 My clever friend Sharon, smiled when I showed her my current notebook with its index of contents, and told her that I had indexed three earlier notebooks, re-discovering  earlier drafts for articles, posts and stories that made me

Clever Sharon keeps everything - her notes, stories, articles and complex domestic domestic planning in her capacious head. I write everything down, catching thoughts like fragments of spider’s webs before they escape.

Now, in yet another notebook, I have rediscovered some advice I write to my daughter ten or so years ago. For some reasons I wrote it sideways across the page - don't ask me why.

My daughter (another writer with notebooks)  tells me that when she comes across something she wrote last year, it's as though it were written by someone else. She reads it with fresh interest and is even even inspired to think again.

So now I see what I wrote eight years ago. 

Advice to D

·       Don’t iron
·       Enjoy being on your own. Being solitary is not being lonely,
·       Embrace passioanate encounters , both emotional and intellectual
·       Cultivate your women friends and encourage the feminine side of the men in your life.
·       Live as though there is no tomorrow and also as though you will live forever.
·       Sit beside the sea for one month every year
·       Know that you are truly beautiful
·       Make things to your own measure
·       Tell people only positive things about themselves.
·       Forgive people early; being unforgiving is corrosive for your soul.
·       Go to the theatre to experience live creativity
·       Love yourself and you will always be able to love others.
The advice  seems to hold even now….

Sunday, 8 November 2015

The Ninth Postcard from Marseillan

Last summer, staying in the Languedoc again, I posted  eight 'Postcards from Marseillan'  here on Life Twice Tasted. I was determined to share with you my feelings about  this very special place  which has inspired two novels. some time travelling and much happiness.

But now here I am in north Britain in November. It's dark at four o'clock and winter is looming  - the worst season of the year for me. (I suspect I may have that SAD disease, but I haven't yet checked it out.) And my writing friend*Avril has just escaped for a break in  India and the lovely *D is just back with pictures and stories of quick Autumn flip across to Marseillan. She writes that she had coffee in the market cafe with our friend Laurence* who knows everything about Marseillan

So, to cheer my self up I decided to tidy up the Life Twice Tasted mansion.  (Hope you like it...). And my virtues was rewarded. In the process I came across a ninth Postcard from Marseillan written especially for a competition which never materialised. 

That  postcard was never posted, so I decided to post it here now to bring a little sunshine into my dark day and perhaps into yours too.

This Ninth Postcard  reflects a very special visit we made to the ancient port town of Sete. 
I hope you too on this November day
enjoy this touch of sunshine and the sea. 

'...So, our car crawls round and round and up and up this extinct volcano. Not what you think, Joe. Just a conical hill now. We pass pale, shuttered houses and jutting bougainvillea. (Did you know the person who discovered Bougainvillea was a woman who disguised herself as a man in order to accompany her botanist lover on his circumnavigation of the globe?)
Anyway, we jump out to a panoramic view across a great, shallow lagoon - they call it an étang – that edges onto the blue Mediterranean.  We look down at the city of Sête – more Neapolitan than French – whose  elegant quayside buildings glitter golden white in the sunshine, beside  the artificial waterways and inlets which are hemmed with fine boats of every kind – these days dedicated as much to leisure as commerce.
Being a history geek, Joe, you’ll be interested to know that the Greeks helped to build this port around 600 BC, importing spices and luxuries from the East in exchange for Langedocean oil and wine. Then the Romans occupied it in their bid to conquer the world. Then, when France became France, the French took over the city from the native Languedoceans.
Later that day we took a boat trip on the étang. You would have loved it. We went to a place on the water where they farm the biggest oysters in the world. The ‘field’ consists of a series of square wooden frameworks sitting on the surface, with thousands of ropes hanging down to the bed of the lagoon – a kind of forest, with hundreds of thousands of oysters and mussels attached to them. Like so much fruit.
According to the bronzed god driving the boat they fix baby oysters to the lines with dots of cement and leave them there to devour plankton to their hearts content in the warm, tide-less waters of the lagoon. He said these mature in a year, unlike the oysters grown in the cold Atlantic which take three years to mature because they close up and stop eating when the tide comes in. Or goes out. I forget which.
It was D’s birthday, so we crowned the day with a feast of these fruits of the sea, artistically presented in size order on small volcanoes of ice. The restaurant was a deceptively simple shack up a narrow track on the edge of the étang. Owned by family who had harvested the sea for generations, the shack was open to the water. We passed tanks of oysters, and made our way to simple chairs and tables topped with industrial glass behind barriers of bleached wood that glittered in the sun.
We toasted D with glasses of crisp Picpoul de Pinet and gulped back these magnificent oysters; it was like swallowing the sea, going back to the very beginning of everything. I don’t know whether oysters are aphrodisiacs but I have to say I ended up very happy. Wish you were here.  Love, W

NB. Wish I were there now ... Wx

Links for You Avril  Debora  Laurence   

Thursday, 5 November 2015

Short Story: Josephine's Englishman.

I have uploaded this short story for you

To read in  full click the short story tab above or click continue (below)

The following story is included in
Forms of Flight, my  Short Story Collection

Obtain a copy of the collection HERE 

Josephine’s Englishman


This story presented itself to me when I was the life of Alphonsine, the mysterious second wife of John Bowes, founder of the Bowes Museum in County Durham. 

You ask how I met him? That you need this for your book? Well, it started very early mademoiselle.
       My father used to draw me as a child. He sketched my chubby feet. He outlined my roly-poly body and filled me in with pastel, rubbed hard - red, white and ochre with green in the creases. Alas it was a losing battle. The body was that of a baby but the emerging face always looked far too old. Those works remained hidden from public sight. Continue 

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

The Original Bachelor Girls: World War One Survivors

At a recent reading group discussion on World War One Literature, a member of the group asked about women left behind by this war  and about their lives between the two World Wars.

Virginia Nicholson

 I have recommended to her an excellent  book that I read last year, written by Virginia Nicholson. This fascinating book has resonance for the lives of present day women, who are inheritors of the lives of these World War One survivors in terms of aspirations, identity, careers and world-view.

It’s a very good read, well researched and very well written, as one might expect from a member of the Stephens/Woolf/ Bell dynasty.

Called Singled Out, it’s subtitled How Two Million Women Survived Without Men After the First World War

To tempt you, here’s an extract from Lynn Knight's  Guardian Review here:

‘... If, in the 1920s, she was likely to be the butt of Punch cartoons (some witty examples are reproduced here), by the 1930s, when reality had had time to bite, the Bachelor Girl had a whole shelf of self-help manuals to choose from, and a range of psychologists willing to diagnose her problems.

... Most singletons had to earn their own living. Domestic service and factories were the largest employers of women during this period. Clerical work was on the increase; teaching was a key occupation (during the 1920s, 80% of Oxbridge-educated women taught). With medicine and teaching among the professions requiring women to give up work on marriage, women who wanted to stay in them had their single status confirmed.’

 I recommended it to this reader and I recommend it heartily to all intelligent readers of fact and fiction.

Artistic Dynasty 


Blog:   'I walked in Elen's shoes...' 5*


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