Category Archives: Writer’s resources

When it Comes to Imagination, it’s Horses for Creative Writing Courses…

Last time, I talked about whether good writing could be developed with the help of a writing course.  This time, I’m focusing on one writing course in particular:

Help!  My writing’s in a rut!  How do I dig out?

Okay, so maybe you like writing and you want to improve?  Or maybe you want to write, but you’re not sure how to start? Maybe you don’t have access to a local writing group, or maybe you do, but it’s just not working for you?  Maybe you’ve been considering doing a writing course, but haven’t got around to it yet?  Maybe you’ve heard good and bad reports about them – there’s so many on the web it gives you a headache to choose?  Maybe you feel you haven’t got the time, or maybe you’ve heard they’re expensive, and you think they’re not a financially viable option for you?

Decisions!  DECISIONS!!  I don't want to be a grown up.

Decisions! DECISIONS!! I don’t want to be a grown up.

Whatever the reason, you can tie yourself in knots, so sometimes, it’s good to have someone else’s opinion.  Someone who’s done a course already, who’s soared the highs and survived the lows.  Yes, you’re right – that person’s ME!

When I was researching my options, it was around the time that university fees had gone through the roof, and I was an indecisive mess (something you’ll quite frequently witness if you know me well) until I stumbled across the York University online creative writing course.  (Yes, it’s a mouthful, but really, once you get over the hurdle of the tongue-twister, you won’t be disappointed).

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When you said I could tie a cherry stalk with my tongue, you didn’t say THIS would happen!

So, what’s it all about then?

So, practically speaking, the course is set into five modules, which are taken flexibly over three years:

  1. Core Module – an introductory overview of fiction, prose, scriptwriting and critical analysis;
  2. Critical Analysis – looks at what successful writers incorporate into their writing and what it achieves;
  3. Fiction;
  4. Poetry;
  5. Scriptwriting (including scripts for radio, film and stage).

The cost of each module, and the accompanying books, won’t break the bank (between 2011-2014, the cost was approximately £200 per 11 week module.)

How was it for you?

Overall, I absolutely loved it, though there were some peaks and troughs, and yes,  it improved my writing no end.   Not just my writing, but my confidence too.  From completing the first module, I’ve shared things I’ve written with anyone who’s interested (as well as anyone who’s not).  I’ve posted on writing platforms, entered competitions, submitted to magazines, became a staff reviewer for Readwave, and also, have been asked to contribute to short fiction website Storgy.

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Where’s the bridge? You said there’d be a BRIDGE!!!!

Yet, while it was money and time well spent, I have to admit that there were moments when it felt like an ordeal that was never going to end (though, fortunately, I’m not one for giving up).  Maybe all courses are like this?   As you reach the last few miles of your journey, the light at the end of the tunnel seems just as far away.

It made me think, whenever we do anything, there’s often a downside.  In fact, there’s very little that’s all good or bad, but it’s useful to know, before you commit, the advantages and disadvantages of this type of course:

Bloody brilliant!

Firstly, there are a lot of reasons to sign up for the York Uni online course:

  • The knowledge of an experienced tutor, who teaches at a degree level, but gives you the support that suits your ability.
  • Flexible learning.  An online course means you can do the course whenever you’ve got time rather than having to attend timetabled classes.
  • The certificate was far less expensive than a degree, though the course was still taught to an extremely high standard.
  • Suits writers of all abilities, from novices to the more experienced.
  • Invaluable feedback and support from tutor and peers.
  • Connections made with like-minded people that continue beyond the course.
  • The focus on fiction/poetry/scripts gives you a strong understanding of all types of writing, regardless of your main interest.  For example, the concrete imagery in poetry, and the scene-setting and dialogue in scripts, create a better understanding of writing good prose.
  • The end of module assessments give you a clear indication of your current writing standard, your strengths, and where you can improve.
  • Lots of inspiration for writing new material.
  • You don’t have to do every module.  If you want the certificate, you have to complete the whole course, but it is possible to do the fiction, poetry, scriptwriting courses individually if you so wish.
  • You can do the course from anywhere in the world, so you’re not limited by location or travel. (Though getting hold of resources, or watching the recommended programmes etc, could be more difficult).

 

And is there a shit end to the stick?

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Like everything, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.  Here are some of the negatives – or rather, the aspects of the course that affected me negatively.

  • It’s time consuming.  You need at least fifteen hours a week for all the reading, writing, research and critiquing required for the course.  Tough if you’ve got other commitments.  I found it took me much longer.  But I’m a slow reader and a slow writer.
  • Some of the course members do not get as involved as others which can be frustrating. (If you’re anally retentive like me and expect everyone to put in an equal effort).
  • Sometimes the sheer amount of critiquing required can be tiresome – I found by my fifth module it became more of a chore (though my personal commitments changed too, which put more pressure on my time).
  • Completing the many course exercises means you have a lot less time for writing for pleasure.
  • With an online course, you miss the joy of knowing people individually; a personal relationship; putting a face to a name.

Enough whinging!  How was it overall?

Though there might seem to be a lot of negatives, there are definitely far more pros than cons.  I certainly don’t regret doing it, and if I was in the same position, wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.  The course was invaluable to writing improvement, and I felt fantastic when I finished it.  What an achievement!

Bleurgh!  I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Bleurgh! I need a shower. My armpits stink.

Also, I’ve developed continuing relationships with some of the course members – we continue to critique each other’s work and offer friendship and support.  They are my safety net when I don’t have anyone else to turn to. (Not many within my family and friendship circles are interested in writing, so it can be a lonely business, especially when you’re feeling insecure – and it’s likely you’re in the same boat too).

In the future, I’m intending to do a Master’s, but at the present time, I’m all coursed out.  For now, I’ll keep on writing, but I’ll write for me, take some risks, and send off more submissions to competitions and magazines.

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I better get my hat back. I’ve got a big head, and I look stupid if it doesn’t fit.

And remember – all writing’s good, whether you do a course or not.  Practise is practise, so keep at it.

You know you want to.

Obviously this is all my opinion.  There are lots of good courses out there, but as I’ve had no experience of them, I can’t tell you what they’re like.  If you’ve taken part in a writing course, please stop by and let me know your experiences, whether they were online or on campus.  I’d love to hear.   Or maybe you don’t think they’re necessary. I’d like to hear what you think about that too.  

 

 

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Writing Reality: Using Synaesthetic Imagery

Great article about using the concept of synaesthesia in writing. It’s something I’d never considered, but now I’ve been introduced to it, I wonder how it managed to pass me by as a writer. It’s a very effective way of getting across complex images. Fantastic.

celenagaia

There’s nothing I love more than to watch for the signs in life. Subtext, subtweet, crossed-wires, imagery, symbolism. In particular, the metaphor can create a beautiful path of words, drawing comparison between one image and another, so that the audience might walk to find themselves at a new truth, a fresh abstract landscape, rather than the tired old concrete definition of some reality.

Synaesthesia – “the transfer of information from one sensory modality to another”, or mingling of the senses – is often used to enhance imagery in writing. We find examples of this every day – “a bitter wind,” “a blue sound”, “a black funk.” As sense-imagery can be a vital part of drawing the audience into a scene, allowing them to experience what the narrative POV does (directly or by proxy), it stands to reason that the use of synaesthesia – the mingling of senses, or connecting…

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I’m Not Hungry Thanks

What do you do when someone asks you to critique their work and you’re really not impressed?  Do you tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  Or do you lie?

As you’re a writer, it’s likely, at some point, that you’ve been approached by another writer to critique their work, probably because they know that it’s not quite right and need a second opinion.  If you’re familiar with them and their writing style – it’s a relatively easy task.  You’ve developed a relationship because you admire each other’s work, you’ve a mutual trust, and an understanding of what to expect.  The whole thing is straightforward – you can be honest, direct, and not tie yourself in knots as to whether you’ll upset them or not. However, it’s an entirely different matter if it’s someone you don’t know that well, but particularly, if it’s the work of someone who’s inexperienced.  Especially if there’s a lot that needs improving.  I don’t know about you, but for me, critiquing the work of someone I’m only vaguely familiar with sets off those anxious little voices in my head (yes, I have voices).  They call out:

You can’t tell them the truth.  

You’ll hurt their feelings.  

And then they’ll be upset.  

And you know who’ll be to blame!

YOU! 

When you’re in this situation (surely I can’t be the only one?), the first thing you should do is turn down the volume on those voices. (You’d never do anything if you took any stock of what they have to say).  The next thing is to consider the critique from the writer’s perspective (especially if they’re a novice).

It’s true that, after a few years of writing, I welcome (fair) constructive criticism, but when I started out, passing my work over for someone else to read made me want to:

  1. throw up;
  2. hide under a blanket;
  3. run away

I knew I was over-reacting. My rational side thought, get a grip woman – it’s only a piece of fiction.  I wasn’t confessing to a life as a prostitute in the window of an Amsterdam brothel (that’s another story)

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She wished she’d got some net curtains. She was sick of every Tom, Dick and Harry looking in when they walked past.

or kidnapping a busload of grannies in Torremolenos and keeping them hostage (best not go there).

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She knew she shouldn’t have left that open invite on Facebook.

Yet, despite this, as a new writer, I felt exposed and vulnerable, consumed by a very real and powerful fear.  My writing felt so personal, and I’d invested so much in it, that the possibility of any negative comments felt like a personal assault on me.  I’d set my creative bar so high, that if I lost my balance, I was scared the fall would be fatal.

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This circus trick course wasn’t all it was made out to be.

It’s this I try to remember when I feedback on someone else’s work: the huge impact we have on someone’s confidence when we tell them our thoughts about their creative abilities. As a reviewer, I’m not simply commenting on a story, but something that is personal to them.  The other thing I try to remember is the lessons I learned from others when I received critiques on my stories:

  • Show consideration for their feelings, and don’t be too blunt.
  • Even if it’s very flawed, it’s really important to make a big deal about the good aspects (pointing out things such as interesting story idea, strong voice, easy narrative style, good characterisation, natural dialogue, striking imagery, etc).
  • Only then, when you’ve buffered them to the hilt, do you describe the weaknesses (in my case, the usual suspects: not moving the story forward, too much irrelevant detail, unnecessary description, explaining too much, being too obvious, overuse of adjectives, cliched characters and cliched writing, too much telling, not enough showing.  I could go on).
  • It’s good to have two positives to every negative.
  • Don’t list TOO many negatives – especially if it’s a new writer.  You can always leave a few out.  The future of the Earth doesn’t depend on it.  It’s likely they’re going to send the story to you again, so you can always point out other issues then – once the writing is stronger.

Hearing the faults in a story isn’t pleasant reading for any writer, but if the positives are emphasised strongly enough, the negatives won’t make you want to scurry away, to hide for eternity, covered in cobwebs and cat wee, never to write again.  Instead, you’ll realise, your writing may not be perfect, but what you have instead is something solid to work with.

So, as a critiquer, what you should be serving to the writer, whatever their experience, is the classic shit sandwich.

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Tell me what the pros of writing are again?

Those two positives I mentioned earlier?  Those are the bread.  And the negative? Yep, that’s the shit filling.  You’ve got that, right?  The bread is a shock absorber to soften the blow.  You’re distracting them with something cosy and comforting to chew on (Mmmm! Thick white Warburtons bread)

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Mmmm, Warburtons. My favourite. What did you say that brown stuff was? Marmite?

before they realise what the smell is and the bad taste in their mouth.  (Do you need some water?)

It’s easy to see many negatives in a lot of new writing, and yes, you should tell the truth, but don’t be overly harsh.  Over-emphasising the positives is not being deceitful.  What you’re actually doing is giving a new writer the honesty they deserve, whilst simultaneously building up their creative confidence and self-esteem. It’s the persistence and practise that’s applied to writing – after an initial boost of confidence – that helps with improvement; the ability to apply the good, and to identify (and remove) the bad.

So, if we return to the shit sandwich analogy (yes, we must)…  Over time, if writers act on feedback, they learn to eliminate the shit from their sandwich until it’s nothing more than an occasional skid mark on the bread.

And maybe one day, if we’re lucky, there’ll be no mark left at all.

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Not that I’ll be eating that bread after I know what’s been on it.

 

 

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Filed under Short fiction, Uncategorized, Writer's resources, Writing

Confessions of a First Time Novellist – Part Four

So, in parts 1-3 of ‘Confessions’, I’ve covered the pitfalls of writing a first novel, how to avoid falling foul of ‘writer’s confusion’ (that’s my own phrase, thank you very much), and how to stick to the target of completing your novel.

Today’s blogpost is brought to you with the collaboration of fellow writer Tom Benson, and the number 4 (that’s Part 4 to you).

With a little help from your friends

Recently, I approached Tom Benson, self-published author of Ten Days in Panama and Beyond the Law to ask if he had any useful tips for helping with the novel-writing process.   He said that, for him, making use of certain tools and ideas makes the whole concept of writing much simpler.  He passed on this list, which he produced during the writing of his novels, which I thought you might find it useful too:

*Make a simple timeline, whether it is set as days, months, years or whatever suits you best. A timeline combined with a synopsis is a real asset from beginning to end.

*Cast of Characters may sound obvious, but keep it handy:

    It will help avoid the duplication of names or similar sounding names.

    It will also help to remind if a character appears once for no good reason – get rid.

*Zodiac signs book. If you haven’t got one, it’s a useful tool for ideas on characteristics, personal likes, dislikes – and even star signs.

zodiac

*Baby names book. A good one will give a range of nationalities.

*The Yellow Pages is good for both names and trades/professions.

yellow-pages

*Body Language book. Say no more, wink, wink, nudge, nudge, fingers crossed.

body-language

*An atlas.

*Fashion Catalogue. In case you’re no good at putting together an outfit.  (Though remember, don’t describe too much of what your characters are wearing.  Your reader doesn’t care.)

*Be aware of the ‘chewing gum on the mantlepiece’. This is where the writer makes a mention of something, (like the aforementioned chewing gum), but it serves no purpose in the story, and is only mentioned in one scene. It could be a person, a vehicle, animal, anything. If it doesn’t serve a purpose – leave it out.

chewed gum

Big chewing gum on big mantlepiece (outside)

*Page Numbers from the outset. They work in your favour in two ways:

    As a navigational aid when editing on screen.

    As a navigational aid when you’ve printed off several pages or a manuscript for editing.

*Obtain a perpetual diary. You can use it to define any date with the correct weekday.

*www.historyorb.com is a great site for checking out information.

*Consider writing the beginning and end, then work on the rest. It may work for you.

*Know every detail of your main characters as if they were real. You won’t be telling everything, but you must know everything.

*If you intend to use a location in the past, double-check its situation/condition at the time.  I had to alter a date, because a meeting place I used was closed for refurbishment when the two characters would have met there.

If you want to check out more about Tom, his e-books are available on Amazon, or you can view his website at www.tom-benson.co.uk and his blog at tombensoncreative.wordpress.com.

From my perspective, I particularly like the idea of the zodiac signs book, the body language book, and the baby names book.  I spend too much time fretting about names, and gestures, and characteristics when I’m writing.   These are great tools which will surely help.  I’d also say that when you’re flicking through the books, they’ll also generate ideas for future characters.

So, stop distracting me.  I’ve got a novel to finish

My own novel is approximately half-way there, though I’ve got lots of concerns about how I’m going to tie up all the individual strands and subplots together.  It’s in my head – can I get it onto paper?  Will it all fit neatly together? I’m putting all that to one side for now, though.  The writing’s the focus.  Improvement later.

In the meantime, I hope that both mine, and Tom’s, experiences and advice will help you with your own novel writing.

I’ll let you know how I get on with the second half of my novel, which will (hopefully) be finished in December.

Watch this space.

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