Saturday 27 April 2013

Join My Back to Basics Workshops at 2pm in May 1st

I’ve always said that teaching is the best way of learning. After so many books and so many years I still have stuff to learn about the fascinating process of writing. So it’s with the delight of anticipation that for the last couple of weeks I’ve been working very hard with my friend Avril Joy preparing for the first of a series of four writing workshops at my old stamping ground, Bishop Auckland Town Hall Library.

We have called this series Back to Basics 
with the idea that in any craft of skill going back to basics is a refreshing and inspiring process for both experienced and new practitioners.

So, as  well as being a refresher course for existing writers who want to look at their method
and process, these workshops have been designed for absolute beginners. These starter workshops are intended to give them confidence to make a start whether their aim is fiction, memoir, family stories or factual writing there will be something inspiring here for everyone.

We will explore the role of writing in everyone’s life even if they don’t consider themselves yet to be a writer - letters, diaries, reports, for instance. We will show the value of normal use of language in speaking, recounting, telling stories. We will talk of the necessity for more experienced writers to audit their skills and practices and go back to basics to evaluate their work, to refresh and rediscover their style.

This first workshop will involve three different and intense writing experiences which will be productive for all writers, from absolute beginners to those who have poems, stories or even books in their literary folio.

These workshops will not involve individuals reading out their own work, as I’ve come to think that this process is time-consuming and more suited to some writers than others. I know that reading out is a convention in workshops but I sometime think that reading out loud at an early stage can be destructive for some people. In the latter of this series fo four workshops we will find other ways of sharing work

So if you happen to be reading this and are in travelling distance of lovely old Bishop Auckland come along and join Avril and me and learn how to develop your writing by going Back to Basics.

As I said at the beginning I think that teaching is the best way of learning so I am sure we will learn lots from you as well.

The workshops start on
Wednesday 1s May at Bishop Auckland Town Hall 2 -4.30
The workshops are free to you but BATH will charge you £2 for the tea/coffee and biscuits includedas a the treat to keep us going.

Workshops Start at 2pm May 1st Bishop Auckland Town Hall. Ring to reserve a place.



Address: Market Pl, Bishop Auckland, County Durham DL14 7NP
Phone:0300 026 9524

Wednesday 24 April 2013

Faces and Fiction Your/My Novel and Work in Progress

Dublin, Ireland ----- A young girl attends the 2012 St. Patrick’s Day parade in Dublin wearing a dress made by her great grandmother. Members of the Irish Traveller community, her family follows a tradition of passing down handmade clothes to younger generations. The girl’s mother also wore this dress.
Think how we refer to the face in our language: the term face is already loaded with metaphor and ulterior meaning.

Putting a good face on it; facing someone down; facing it;  facing up to things; being two faced; facing the consequences

The physiology of the faces has its own message system:
Eye being the window to soul; hollow eyes; haunted eyes; shadowed eyes; bright eyes; folded lips; wide smile; rigid jaw

Movements of  the face are part of the action in our prose:
The Writer's Challenge:
There's no art to find
 the mind's construction
 in the face.
 frowning, raising eyebrows; smiling widely; grinning,  winking, smirking, winking, leering, sneering, glowering, eyes narrowing. Every micro expression has meaning that you may use..

The face is work in progress. It tracks the passage of time:
Faces seem to seem  remain the same yet alter  through time: plain faces become handsome, distinguished with time;  pretty people become plain with the passage of years. 

Faces are the place where the act of living maps your experience:

He had the look of one who had drunk the cup of life and found a dead beetle at the bottom.  P G Wodehouse.

( A thought: A child's face  is hard to paint and hard to write, How do you paint or write a blank canvas? Even great painters have problems with children, Look at Van Gogh! We can portray children more through their emanations and actions, their wriggling and rolling, their screaming and chattering...) 

Returning to the grown-ups and how in our prose we use faces in our prose to indicate feeling, drama and action. 
 His eyes made a person think that
he heard things that no one else
 had ever heard, that he knew things
 no one had ever guessed before.
He did not seem quite human. 

Carson McCullars
Very strong genres do use direct description to establish the character so that we know very quickly the appearance of the hero/ine so we can  fit them into the shorthand stereotype of handsome hero, surly but good-looking  detective, beautiful maiden, sultry temptress, dark but handsome villain; or/burly but attractive action man. Guidelines for purely genre fiction assert quite rightly that we need to see our main characters  early  in the novel. Straight  description is very efficient for this.

My preferred way is to use the face in the process of the storytelling.I prefer not  to describe directly 
but to  allow the reader to  infer indirectly as the narrative grow. What happens in the face is part of the whole gradual package of the novel as we get to know the characters, their age and demeanour, their motivation, their transitory meaning as part of the ongoing narrative: 
What different things happens in their face as they speak to someone they love, they hate, they despise, they need? 
What happens when your character focusing on a particular task? eg the tip of my tongue shows when I am concentrating on drawing or writing.

[Irish spinner and spinning wheel. County Galway, Ireland] (LOC)
My comforr is that old age,
that ill-layer up of beauty
can do more spoil upon my face

More from Shakespeare:
-  Of course the face can tell lies. God has given you one face and you make yourself another.
- False face must hide what false heart must know
- I never see they face but I think on hellfire.

And one from JG Salinger
- She was not one for emptying her face of expression. 

Of course we don't have to make our characters gurning, grinning puppets but the use of  the mobility of the face to indicate character, drama and action is available to us and if we use it artfully and with restraint it will add vivid layers to our prose.

To illustrate: Work in Progress from my current novel :

... He spoke to them in the old tongue but both brothers answered in Latin. Kynan grinned at Magnus’s surprise. ‘Our father had us spend two seasons in the house of a merchant in Rome, an agent who sold our lead right across the great inland sea.’...

(In the context of the narrative the word 'grinned' has much more meaning here than the baring of teeth,..,,)

Wednesday 17 April 2013

Half Way Through: Ten Tips for Editing Your/My novel

I’ve spent a week or two now carrying out an in-depth edit on the first half of the new novel and am very much reminded of  the words of John Braine in his 1974 book How To Write a Novel 

'The most difficult task for a novelist is the movement of people between time and place.'   

This deceptively simple statement occurs to me every time I embark on some heavy duty editing.

For me beginning a novel, involves researching, thinking, imagining, writing sketches, making bubbles of action and linking them into some kind of loose structure. It involves collecting images, drawing people and pictures, making maps (see my post about Mapping the Imagination).

So now, I’ve just finished the half-way-through-edit and here for you  is my new list of

 Top ten things to do on a half way edit.  

This involves: 

1.     Gradually recognising and refining your own style (always learning …)

2.     Establishing the strong foundation on which you will build the rest of the novel

3.      Inserting earlier the significant detail now emerging in the narrative.

4.     Reinforcing time/place where it seems useful

5.      Ensuring consistency in place and characterisation

6.     Checking continuity of action 

7.     Changing, evolving and establishing names as characters reveal themselves

8.     Recognising and endorsing the significant characters and points of view

9.     Ensuring that the structure is doing its job for the reader. - This could include the way the
       chapter and part structure work

10.                        Recognising structural implications for the rest of the novel

After that at last you (and I!)  can think forward to the second half of the novel. For me this means more thinking, more imagining, more images, and … er … another map…

I thought maybe you’d like to see some Work in Progress
… Lleu raises his hand. I close my eyes and think of the statue of Branwen in the centre of the pool in my father’s house. Then I raise my hand and, side by side, Lleu and I begin, steady step by steady step, to walk on fire. We do not hurry.  The crowd breaks into great applause as finally we leap back onto the grass at the far end. The old priest, still standing there at the end of the fire pit waves his staff across us and sings a blessing. I am filled with energy and delight and smile broadly and wave at the great circle of people there. Lleu holds up his arms in a victory salute. The young stick fighters beat their sticks against each other making a rattling rhythm. A pipes-man squeezes out a few notes. Another man makes his elk horn pipe squeal.
Lleu smiles and shushes the crowd. ‘Would any here like to walk the fire as do my sister and I?’ He grins broadly at the chorus of groans…

Saturday 6 April 2013

Writer's Note 5 : The charming, narcissistic Rosamund Lehmann

(One of an occasional series here about writers and writing, inspired by my correspondence with my friend Virginia Hiller...)

I've  just finished the biography of Rosamund Lehmann by Selena Hastings. Fascinating. A life more strange than fiction. - A beautiful, talented girl and woman who knew intimately
The shy, clever, seductive
intensely self-aware young beauty,,,
just everyone in the literary world of the mid twentieth century - from the Bloomsburies and Ian Fleming to Laurens Van Der Post; from Edith Sitwell to Carmen Callil,

On the downside she was narcissistic and stunningly passive aggressive. Possessing enormous  and seductive charm she looked for admiration and obsession from those around her -men and women - and was a terrible enemy to those who - as she saw it - rejected her. (Most famously Cecil Day Lewis.) She was case-book paronoid and obsessed with the emotions of the people with whom she was intimate.

She was incontinently disclosive in her desire to express her pain at the way people -0 as she saw it -  were treating her. As she grew older (scenes of things to come for some of us ...) she became something of a monstre sacre, ballooning because of her child like love of sweet things but still seeing the woman in the mirror as the beauty she had been. 

This biographer was one of those  who admired and loved her but witnessed this ultimate decay of a unique personality. Her critical assessment of the few novels is admiring but very sharp in its insight regarding  the inferred autobiographical nature of the characters and their doomed emotional journeys.

Reading biographies is a two edged pleasure. On the one hand it gives an illuminating
Still beautiful, seductive, clever,
 and intensely self-aware in old age.
access to uniquely talented personalities. On the other it can show you that your angels have feet of clay. 

This biography, however, has sent me back to Lehmann's novels - particularly Weather in The Streets. Nobody does better than Lehmann a woman's yearning to be loved and her desolation at being rejected. 

In the light of the contemporary  Women's Prize for Writing,  there is much discussion about  whether there is such a thing as 'Women's Writing'. Lehmann - much admired by men - disliked to be known as a women's writer but I feel  this biography shows her as just that. 

And being a bit that way myself, I found her ill-fated late-life obsession with life after death fascinating....

- a good read on a cold dark day!

Monday 1 April 2013

Artistry and Playfulness Move Through The Fair

My friend Juliet became the fourteenth person -  alongside Avril Joy* and the knowledgeable Jack Haggerty of Glasgow - to offer me a new version of the eternal She Moved ThroughThe Fair - eulogised  here before

Juliet recommended Sandy Denny singing it with Fairport Convention. She has the ‘60s LP. I checked it online and found it at a sky high price in Vinyl far beyond my modest writer’s means. 
Then Juliet put me onto the re-engineered CD, well within my means. This features She Moved Through The Fair, sung by Sandy Denny - alongside great songs written and performed by the group and with the addition of iconic songs by Joni Mitchell (Eastern Rain) and Bob Dylan (I’ll Keep It With Mine).
I relished Sandy Denny‘s version of She Walks Through the Fair. Sung with elegant power and mystery, it is different again.  

Then on the tenth listen to this version I realise that in verse six Sandy is singing:
…I dreamt it last night that my dead love came in
So softly she entered her feet made no din
She came close beside me and this she did say …

Other versions I’ve heard render this as my dear love came in

This, of course reflects the dynamic nature of such traditional songs. Not only can they be re-interpreted, they can be re-worded.

But I very much prefer the dear love version
I did think the use of dead love  was a pity here. It’s easy to know from the more original versions is that it is a song of love and death, but in these the death part has to be inferred by the listener which increase the subtlety of the song, enhancing the enigma and the ancient significance of the words.
Still, Sandy Denny delivers the song superbly on this CD.
 Thank you Juliet.

But another great treat with this CD Album is the narrative in the booklet

It seems that in about 1968 Fairport Convention were playing a gig at Essex University. ‘We were given a classroom as a dressing room…some members, probably Sandy and Martin started to do a caricature (on the board) … it grew and grew … all the knobs on the amps, the names the voltage wires…’
They moved on, but later needing a cover for their new album they sent someone to photograph the board before the cartoon was rubbed off.
The artwork here reflects the  intuitive artistry and playfulness characterised the style and freedom of the music world in the '60s and '70s before the profiteering puppet-masters got the industry by the jugular.  Part of this was the playful, sometimes surreal, creative crossover between art and music, between music and lyrics, between art school students who explored their new freedoms in music and young audiences who recognised their own world and concerns in the new lyrics.

Words, Writing and Art have gone hand in hand in my own world since then.

From my collage: looking at me from the past.
She did move through the fair.
Though no great artist I do draw and paint and once had the privilege of teaching art in school.
I tend to use art analogies when trying to explain my writing process, talking of blocking in a large canvas before the start of a novel; adding colour and a depth field to a character.
I also work at the intricacy of my novel through building collages which spread across my study wall with a life of their own. And there is music. I describe myself as ‘on song’ when the writing is flowing and I am creating prose about the people, places and actions – living in a world that moves and lives before me.

In the case of my new novel my moving world is very ancient, plucked out of a non-recorded world where my collages drip with ancient maps and old cloth, with images of beautifully wrought objects handled by my people, with speculative images – some drawn my me – to feed my imagination.
I also feed that imagination with the ancient myths that came down to us through song and spoken story, trickling down from then to now.

One such song is She Moved Through The Fair.

*See Avril’s extraordinarily insightful writing blog at


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