My turn to say a few words on the blog. I did enjoy reading Liz’s entry about the Yeovil Literary Festival – coming up on September 19th. I’ve let the side down badly by not being around for it – in fact I’ll be in Portugal, sight-seeing with a friend who has a great taste for port, so you can guess what we’ll be drinking. We’re going to the north, Douro, region which neither of us knows well (vague memories of Peninsular War lessons for A Level history). Should be fun – but I’m very sorry to be missing the shenanigans in Yeovil. I promise to be around next year!
A few weeks ago I spent a week (I don’t know how I’ve managed two holidays this year, it seems that there’s just something about retiring from the salaried job which makes you want to wander off and - enjoy) on the Greek island of Skyros, on one of the writing courses which some of you may have seen advertised. I was a bit sceptical about this but I’d been feeling that the contemporary crime novel I’d been trying to write was going nowhere and when I heard that Sophie Hannah was running a course on crime fiction I just couldn’t resist. Well, I had a ball. The island is fabulous – too difficult to get to for most tourists, stunningly beautiful and the people are really friendly. The beaches are sandy and safe and what more could one want? Yes - a good writing course.
The Skyros Experience’ is all about ‘finding yourself’ and there are courses in Art and Life Choices which help you do that; the Writers Lab, or my experience of it, was more about finding out whodunit. There were twenty of us altogether the week I went (and I had a fabulous room in the town, full of early Skyros furnishings and – possibly more important – with a great breeze blowing gently through windows at each end to keep out the mozzies and the heat) of whom there were 8 in the Writing Lab. It’s hard to explain exactly how Sophie taught, she seemed laid back but we all knew just how thoroughly prepared she was. She made us work, but it was fun and we all got involved in each other’s ideas as well as our own. Everyone seemed to find something positive to offer about each other’s work, and it helped that we were all at similar stages in our writing careers. And Sophie never made anyone read out anything they would prefer to keep quiet! We heard that she was involved in a top secret ‘project’ and managed to guess she’d been asked to write a sequel to, or another instalment of, some famous (deceased) author’s work, but none of us guessed whose. Yesterday I heard on the Today programme: she’s writing another Poirot! I can’t wait to read it. Her plotting is as intricate and misleading as Christie at her best – but I cannot work out how she can write anything to follow Poirot’s last case in Curtain. Just have to wait till next year to find out.
Did the course help? Yes. Even though it meant I ditched the main character in my novel, because I realised I had the wrong viewpoint, and began to work on a much darker version of the same story. I also learned far more about plotting than I’d expected – Sophie never tells you that there’s only one way to do things, but she has ideas that get your own brain working. I used to begin a novel knowing how things started and ended with a vague idea of the ups and downs of the journey, now I’m considerably more organised (I have a Plan!) without feeling as though I’m in a straightjacket or that I know everything. The book’s progressing steadily, and I’m finding some nice surprises along the way. If you’re stuck, my experience is that it can help to get right away from your desk (or wherever you write) and talk to strangers . If you can’t afford Greece, there are plenty of weekend options in this country, or think about the Winchester Writers' Conference.
Writing’s a solitary occupation. We could probably all write a book about the ways in which we can delay getting down to it – if we weren’t too busy cleaning the cooker with a toothbrush or walking the neighbour’s dog (I don’t have one of my own). Displacement activities can be great fun (or not, but when else would I clean my cooker so thoroughly?) but if you don’t want to write, it’s much better to do something more relevant and constructive and mingle with other writers. They might even stimulate you to scurry back to the laptop/PC/Mac/notebook and pen/pencil/stylus/quill. So why not find your nearest literary festival, or give yourself a short break at a writers’ workshop? You never know just what you’ll find out about your own writing.
Margaret Graham has also kindly (rashly?) asked me to offer some tips about poetry writing. First admission: I am not a poet. I have, however, taught both the study of poetry and its writing. It’s funny that someone like me who does not have the true gift of poetry has sometimes been able to help students find their own voice and really sing. My advice is therefore taken from their experience as well as my own.
· Following on from what I was saying about sharing your problems with sympathetic strangers: I am sure several of you belong to poetry groups. Have you ever tried open mic readings? They are public poetry readings and, if they are well run, you should get a knowledgeable audience and some interesting feedback. Go along as audience at first, to test the waters, but don’t be afraid to give it a try.
· You always carry a notebook and pencil (or pen) with you, don’t you? Of course you do. Inspiration might strike at any time. But why wait for inspiration? Help your brain get into the habit of poetry. Set yourself a daily exercise. It helps if it’s themed. Get one of those thin notebooks and title it with your theme. Journeys, perhaps. Daily, over coffee or before breakfast, take ten or twenty minutes to write something – it may just be an image, it may be a sonnet, it may be a list of details that might mark a journey (physical or emotional). Choose your words with care but avoid thinking ‘this is a poem’. Give yourself a limit of perhaps a month on this single topic and don’t reread anything until that month is up. Go back to it after thirty days – you will be surprised what jewels lie in the dust of that journey.
· Whether you write free verse or more formal poetry is, of course, your choice. It is useful, however to know about the formal styles. You should know about couplets and sonnets and ballads and blank verse and rondeaus. A good exercise is to try to put an idea into a more formal version if you normally write in free verse, and into free verse if you usually choose something more formal. This can be surprisingly liberating although most people initially expect it to be constricting. Poets like Carol Ann Duffy move between forms to suit what she is saying.
· Try removing all punctuation (including capital letters), take out the line and stanza breaks if you dare. Now go back to the poem after you’ve had a day or two to have forgotten exactly what you originally did. Read what you have written and see where you think the punctuation falls. Compare your two versions and see which you prefer and why. You might try this with another poet’s work – when you’ve done it, try to see why the poet might have made the choices he or she did.
These are all exercises to keep the mind limber. A bit like doing your stretches before you go for a run (and, no, I seldom go for runs – but I know a man who does). I hope you find at least one that you find enjoyable. Unlike stretches.
Enjoy your writing!