So, the week’s writing adventure at the Arvon centre in The Hurst, John Osborne’s house in Shropshire, is done.
Monday to Saturday, five days of thinking and writing and talking and sharing, and cooking and washing up. And very enjoyable it was too. Two well-prepared and interesting tutors – Chibundu Onuzo and Lucy Hughes-Hallett – and a great group of writers. Ages in the group ranged from early twenties to myself; three blokes, the rest women. I was impressed by the quality of what we produced in fast writing exercises, and the diversity of experience we brought. Really enjoyable, and only slightly marred by the responsibility of producing an evening meal for fifteen people on one of the nights. I was relieved when my turn was behind me. The food was delicious, and too much of it!
I wish I had copies of some of the short pieces we produced. Re-workings of the Cinderella story generated some great laughs, I remember, At one point, Lucy asked to write about a person from our childhoods, which turned out to be very emotional. And how many words could we find as an alternative to ‘nice’? What might the choice of word indicate about the character who would choose it? All sorts of activities reminded me of the basics of writing a great story.
For me, the purpose of the experience was to clear my head about whether, when and what I want to write in the future. And the main thing I came away with is that I should relax, slow down and not commit to anything until I’m ready. I’m leaving my options open, and not succumbing to pressure from myself or anyone else to a deadline for another book, if there’s going to be one.
So, there we are. For the time being my future plans are inside my head and not to be shared. Does that sound curmudgeonly? Perhaps, but never mind. At my time of life, I can do as I please. Watch this space.
I spent decades of my professional life working with schools and education systems on how they find out how well they’re doing: what information to gather, how to do so, and how to use the information so that it improves their ‘performance’ rather than just measures it. As the old saying goes, ‘weighing the pig doesn’t make it grow.’
Many of my Twitter contacts are educators, from all around the world, and these same concerns never seem to fade. All of us accept that as educators we should be accountable for the public money we spend and for the futures of our students that we share with their families. The issue has never been ‘accountability’: it’s always been accountability to whom, for what, and what information is pertinent to these purposes.
The key first step is to define what constitutes success in our classrooms, schools and systems. Only after that can we decide what information will relate to and reveal these important outcomes. All sorts of information can be useful, including numerical data, so long as the numbers accurately represent something of agreed value. The problem is that the quick and ‘manageable’ tests commonly used as the most important measure are seriously flawed, capable only of representing a fraction of the outcomes that we all agree to be important in preparing our children for their future lives. These future lives are to be lived in the 21st century, not the 19th.
Of course, our young people need to be literate and numerate, but they also essentially need to be resourceful, flexible, digitally confident, and collaborative if they are to thrive as individuals. If the communities and societies they inhabit are to be successful, our people also need to be aware and respectful of others, thoughtful, optimistic – the list goes on, influenced by one’s view of the world.
Unfortunately, in England, our students and their schools face a barrage of measurement that hardly scratches the surface of the information we really need. Students’ worth can be calibrated on their performance in these inadequate assessments, and – as we have seen this week – those students whose estimated future performance might adversely affect the school’s overall ‘scores’ can be asked to leave. This perversion of true educative values has been going on for years, and this week’s headlines have been no surprise to many of us.
There is much more to say about all this, but for now I want to make a link to what can be defined as a ‘successful’ book, or author. Yes, of course ‘success’ can be defined simply in sales which are gratifyingly easy to count, but even that number doesn’t equate to the number of people who actually read the book, finding it in a library or lent by a friend. Other quantifiable measures might be the number of five-star reviews on Amazon, but you don’t have to look hard to find the flaws there.
Professional reviews? Questionable indicators of quality, in terms of which books are chosen and how they are reviewed, by whom, and under what pressure or obligation from a shared publisher or personal loyalty.
As with education, the starting point for deciding the success of a book is to ask the author to define what they were wanting to achieve, and go from there. When I run my workshops on “Successful self-publishing” that’s where we start. ‘What constitutes success for you?’ I ask, ‘and what it would look like if this were achieved?’
In writing as well as learning, the most useful information is ‘ipsative’, from the Latin ‘ipse’ meaning ‘self’. We are most usefully assessed against our own previous best, not against some external norms, or even against criteria that may not fully reflect our personal aspirations. If you’re a teacher or a writer, what does success look like for you?
I didn’t know ‘writing apps’ existed until I was being interviewed for a blog last year and the interviewer asked me which one I used. He was far more digitally sophisticated than me, and seemed surprised that I was plugging away in ‘Word’, saving drafts into files, struggling to find things, taking time to find previous versions and essential research notes. Actually my writing process was even more more messy and muddled than I confessed to him at the time, but it had worked for some years, just about, and I felt “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. However inefficient, my approach by last year was a vast improvement on the frustrating experience of writing my first novel ‘A Good Liar’, which took four years from 2008 to 2012 and nearly went on the back of the fire more than once during that time.
My blogger friend had mentioned Scrivener, and I checked it out. Even the introductory blurb seemed very complicated: in the middle of the first draft of ‘Fatal Reckoning’ I was too busy to read it properly and carried on with my usual writing process that may not have been efficient but was at least familiar.
Some months later I ran a workshop on ‘Starting to Write’ at the Borderlines festival in Carlisle in 2016, and decided to mention it to the group, some of whom of course were well ahead of me, but still it felt like something that other people might use, not me.
Another few months on again and in the flush of New Year’s resolutions I’m telling myself that the time has come to try it out properly. I’m at the very early stages of researching and planning the next novel. Already I’ve eased the time pressure on myself by deciding from the start to aim for the summer of 2018 to get this book out, and the time to re-examine my writing process is definitely right. I decided to go straight in, avoiding the various guides to the software, and so this morning I downloaded the 30 day free trial version of Scrivener and have resolved to make myself try it out, patiently and with an open mind.
I have already reassured myself that the software has nothing to do with the content or style of my work, but deals only with the process of drafting in a way that might be helpful. My fear is always that my writing might become formulaic, paying too much attention to the usual protocols, but there’s no reason to believe that using Scrivener as a tool would increase that possibility, at least as far as I can see. So I’m resolved to give it a go. I reckon that by the time the free trial runs out I should have either decided to continue with it or not, and I’ll report my progress then.
In the meantime, if anyone reads this far and has practical advice to offer, I’m all ears. I am going to treat this experience as an intellectual challenge, like learning another language, which is believed to be good for an ageing brain like mine. Bring it on.
Late again this week with my regular blog post, mainly because much of my screen time has been taken up with a new on-line course, and it’s that experience I’ve been thinking about. I was attracted to it in the first place because it was so much easier and cheaper than schlepping down to London for something similar, finding a place to stay, dealing with a large group whose demands on the tutors always seem more pressing than mine – you know the story.
But cheaper things are often not worth the little you pay for them, so a week or two into it, what are my feelings so far? It’s a first for me, and I wasn’t sure at all. But so far, it’s been OK. It does what any good learning experience should do, make you think about what you’re doing by exposing you to alternatives, providing feedback which is useful as long as it’s specific, and encouraging you to change things and be more adventurous. The course, by the way, is called ‘An Introduction to Crime Writing’ and is with the Professional Writers Academy. The tutor is Tom Bromley, and the visiting ‘mentor’ is Sarah Hilary, a familiar name given her success with ‘Someone Else’s Skin’. Her book is one of those that we’ll be reading and discussing with her as a group exercise.
Other than that, the work is spread over four weeks and provides a succession of structured exercises: first week on ‘settings’, second on ‘developing character’, and so on. For each section we have some contrasting examples to look at and critique, and then a piece of our own to write using what we’ve learned, which is posted and critiqued by at least two others in the group.
What’s working so far? First, we were able to see Tom Bromley talking in a podcast in which he explained the course and introduced himself. It’s always useful to see and hear someone you’re dealing with on-line: without that, it’s very difficult to establish any form of relationship, especially when you are trusting that person to provide something worth both your time and your cash. We have audio interviews too with Sarah Hilary, although audio-only is less engaging. Second, the extracts and writing tasks are well-chosen and conducive to learning. In the second section, on Character, we’ve been offered three examples of ‘the detective’ – the genius who has a massive brain and works everything out; the meticulous plodder who just keeps doing the leg work until enough information is forthcoming; the flawed anti-social person who gets there by some bizarre route the rest of us would never consider. I’ve found those differences interesting, and helpful in deciding what kind of behaviour I want from my ‘detecting’ character. Today I’ll tackle the exercise in which we are asked to describe how our chosen ‘detective’ makes and eats his/her breakfast. What a great idea. As well as enriching the setting, both place and time, we can show so much through just watching and recording what happens in the mind’s eye.
Of course when you’re offered examples it’s tempting to mould your character to fit one of these ‘models’. The seduction of ‘genre formulae’ has to be resisted, even against the siren call of the latest block-buster. If a particular approach has worked and sold heaps of copies for someone else, last year, that’s no reason to attempt to replicate it, even though it might be reassuring to an agent. I had an interesting ‘conversation’ with Tom Bromley about ‘Someone Else’s Skin’ and what constitutes ‘success’, which I’ll come back to in a later post.
I’m enjoying the screen contact with some of the group members, although there are fewer of those than I was anticipating. Some have posted a picture and a detailed profile, others have not, although the privacy protections are strong. It’s easier to ‘talk’ to someone if you know where they’ve been and what they look like, isn’t it? We’re all reacting differently to both the extracts and the tasks, which makes for fewer assumptions about what’s ‘good’ or ‘clear’ for a reader, and that’s salutary for a writer.
One potentially unhelpful aspect is the quality of feedback available to any of us from the other participants who look at what we write. Surprisingly, no guidance is offered about what constitutes useful feedback, and how to react to it: it’s just assumed that we all know how to do it, and we don’t. I want to provide and receive specific detail, critical as well as positive. It takes longer to consider and to write, but if feedback is an essential part of the learning we should expect it to be quite rigorous, and some advice about this would be useful.
So far, so good. Compared to some of the writing groups and courses I’ve been on over the years, this is proving relatively useful. When an actual group works well, which involves good leadership as well as the accident of composition, the experience can be more intense than anything you could achieve on-line. But when a group doesn’t work well it can be immensely frustrating. I recall paying a lot of money and travelling many miles for a five day experience that was a model of what shouldn’t happen. It was a group for established writers but with no ‘filters’, so some of the members had no writing experience and had come only for a holiday. The group leaders were also inexperienced and badly prepared. One of them spent most nights drinking noisily with some of the group members. The following morning his apology for not having read our work – one of his duties – was all about what a great night it had been. After one day I absented myself from the group completely and got on with my writing, which I could have done without leaving home. Looking back on what I wrote that week I notice now how dark and violent it was!
I can tell when a plot is forming when I start looking inside my head and lose track of what’s happening around me. It makes me terribly bad company, and not fit be with people until I make a conscious effort to haul myself back to reality. That’s where I am right now: I recognise the state of mind, but I have to admit I don’t welcome it.
It’s a dilemma I’ve faced before, and I’m not sure there’s much I can do about it. I like people and company and talking and listening. When I was working in education, opportunities to indulge these pleasures were built into the work, and I loved the intense engagement involved. I’ve described my work at its best as the equivalent of an extreme sport, where all your senses and your brain are stretched and exercised, deliciously so. Now I’ve made a long-delayed decision to leave the education work behind and focus on being a writer, which is essentially an inward-looking isolated existence, and I know I’m going to find it hard. Writing can give me that wonderful intensity of concentration, the ‘flow’, but I also need an outlet for the other side of my nature, the gregarious interactive side.
To some extent, I’ve found it, in the opportunities I already have to present my work, talk about the books and discuss them with readers and other writers, but so far those opportunities aren’t quite frequent enough to meet the need. I get the feeling that people don’t expect writers to be able to ‘present’, as if the two skills were at opposite ends of a spectrum. But I was making my living as a presenter for twenty and more years before I started to write fiction. I know I can do both, and the balance isn’t quite right yet. I want to write to the organisers of the big literary festivals and tell them they need people like me who can ‘entertain’ an audience. large or small, but even saying that here sounds woefully egotistical.
Sometimes, listening to other writers and reading what they say on Twitter, I get the feeling that the presenting skills are somehow despised, or at least regarded as an unwelcome distraction from the monastic business of writing. Is my interest in running workshops, reading my own work and talking about my books inappropriate for a serious writer? Or is it just a sign that my real interest is in stories and ideas and communicating, whether written or oral? Maybe that means I’m not properly serious about being a writer, or maybe I’ll just have to keep the two activities going on parallel tracks and divide my time between them in a way that makes me happy.
I’ve been looking forward to this for weeks, and anxious about it too, and last Saturday, January 17th 2015 at Kendal library I led my very first full day writing workshop. And I really enjoyed it, although I was pretty exhausted when it was over: partly the several hours of concentration and partly lack of sleep the night before.
There were eleven in the group, small enough for conversation and large enough to benefit from a range of people. The range was hard to deal with too, as each person came with different prior writing experience, and therefore a range of wants and needs. It was quite a short day as the library didn’t open until 9.30am and closed at 3.30pm. We took a short lunch break but even so it was only about 5 hours once we’d got organised and started, and the challenge was trying to cover the long list of ‘aspects’ that I’d made. Some things went by the board when they didn’t appear in the group’s list of priorities: we mentioned ‘dialogue’ only briefly, for example, even though to my mind it’s essential to the pace and depth of a novel, to drive the story and to reveal character. I could probably have skipped or truncated the focus on the interaction between character, setting and story, but that was the first session and it was only at that time that the importance of the prior learning became obvious. Or maybe we needed to start with relatively familiar stuff just to get warmed up.
What really delighted me was everyone’s willingness to contribute and be honest about the struggle of both writing and getting published. I felt as if I was among friends, and in that safety people were open to new ideas and developing their story plans really quickly given the stimulus of good ‘what if questions’. We laughed and encouraged each other, and that was great.
The part of the day that seemed to resonate with all of us was about ‘structure’, not just the protocols of the 3 act structure which I didn’t do well explaining I fear, but the business of seeing a full-length fiction as a whole before starting to write the first draft. That doesn’t mean that every last detail is mapped out and immutable, but it does give you as the writer a view of the landscape before you start your journey. Maybe I enjoyed discussing this because it was what I lacked so woefully when I started my first novel, and was probably the reason why it took four years to complete. I learned the structure lesson the hard way, and took much more care with planning the second book. Now on book 4 I’m planning ahead in even more detail, but this is the first foray into crime fiction and the intricacies of the story are demanding more care at this early stage.
I suggested that we need to see the shape of the work all at once, rather than sequentially. To this end I put my early draft outline on paper or cards and lay them all out on the floor, or pin them on the wall, taking in the picture all at once, moving pieces around, seeing connections and possibilities that I hadn’t seen when the work was on screen or in one continuous piece. ‘Simultaneous visual display’: maybe it depends what kind of mind you have. I’m an abstract random thinker by preference, at least in the first instance, and need that overall picture before I can sort the pieces into an order.
Most – but not all – of the group wanted to talk about publishing, and I’d forgotten how depressing the conversation can be as one by one we told our stories of disinterest from agents, prejudice against self-publishing, the financial considerations, the time and the waiting, ineligibility for competitions and so on, and so on. I don’t regret the decision to self-publish and to invest my time, energy and money in the process but for people with less to invest it looks a pretty bleak picture.
As we concluded, however we want to get into print, the most important starting point is to have a really high quality piece of work, and for that we need to welcome editing. Family and friends mean well but their feedback isn’t enough. Getting professional critique seems to cost so much that it becomes another hurdle that blocks progress. One or two people asked if I would offer a critique, and although I have a professional interest in feedback my own experience of writing is still limited. So I agreed, but won’t charge anyone until I feel I can offer a service worth paying for. Already I fear the siren call of writing-related activities – running workshops, critique and feedback, advice on self-publishing – when what I most need and want to do is write my own stuff.
I’m taking a break from everything for the next two months to pursue a long-standing travel ambition, so I’ve got some time to think about it. When I get back in mid-March it’ll be straight into the first draft of book 4 (as yet untitled) to meet the deadline of August that I have set myself. So I’m disappearing from Twitter, blogs and all that for two months at least. I’m not sure that anyone will notice!