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Over the years I've amassed several bookcases of 'How to Write' guidebooks. Books with titles like 'So You Want To Be A Writer?' or 'Writing: A Step by Step Guide'. Generally they've all been very helpful. But there seems to be a gaping hole in an otherwise chock-full marketplace for a book that gets into logistics. Maybe it should be called the logistical guide to writing. Or the 'I work full-time so how do I fit in my novel?' guide to writing. Exercises designed to drag inspiration out of the daily grind are all very well. But can someone please tell me how to build a writing career amidst the metropolis that is my 9-5 job, mountains of housework, kids' schedules, husband's workload, overflowing inbox, etc etc etc??

I haven't arrived at this destination yet, but I'm on my way. If I ever get there, I shall write a book called something along the lines of 'The Mum's Guide to Writing'. There may well be a few writing exercises in there, but, more helpfully, there will be practical stuff. Like, here's how to write despite the demands of domesticity (get a cleaner). Like, here's how to write despite spending all day, every day, running from pillar to post (learn to write while running). But I'm curious to know how other people do it. If a book ever hits Amazon on how other successful writers managed to carve their profession into the rockface of the quotidian, I'll be buying it. Until then, I've a long way to go....

Time to Write

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Nov 20, 09 12:12 PM

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Many of the major literary funding bodies offer a 'time to write' award, which is a lump sum of money intended to permit a writer to take time off from their normal day job in order to hack away at their novel/script/poetry collection. New Writing North, the Society of Authors and, once upon a time, the Arts council all facilitate such awards. In other words, such kindly funding bodies recognise that (a) the emerging writer most likely has a day job to foot the bills and (b) writing takes up a lot of time.

Such awards are absolutely brilliant - if you can get them. If not, you are faced with a quandary. Either find a way to juggle writing with a full time job, family etc., or don't. Women in particular are faced with this dilemma as family pressues sap time, energy, and inspiration - indeed, an alarming number of female authors have commented on the pressure to choose between 'a child or a book.'

So, how to write AND do everything else that life requires, if a 'Time to Write' award is not forthcoming? Does it really take a nomadic lifestyle with a generous patron to produce that stellar screenplay? I'd bet it helps. But there's also an argument that such stresses and pressures can be beneficial to the writing life. One author - who continues to hold down a 9-5 day job despite wracking enough booksales to focus on writing full time - swears by the rigors of an extra-literary profession to keep the creative juices flowing. An American screenwriter friend of mine found a month-long stint at a writer's retreat - during which she had nothing else to do except write, sleep and eat (a dream, right?) - shockingly unproductive. Without the ebb and flow of the daily grind, she said, her writing became too isolated, too stale. It's well known that Seamus Heaney translated Beowulf at a rate of four lines a night. I've read countless interviews with authors who profess to have written their novels during long commutes - to and from their day job. Admittedly, I wrote one book while in the bath.*

Despite what my American screenwriter friend says, I still dream about days without laundry, dishes, commuting, homework, etc etc - days that are wiped clean of every demand so that I can devote myself wholly to writing. But, by the looks of things, it ain't gonna happen for the next 25 years. That doesn't mean to say that I won't be writing. I'll be writing where and when and how I can. The discipline isn't just about seizing snatches of free time to put pen to paper - the real discipline is using time that isn't free as thinking time, researching time, filtering overheard conversations and experiences at home and in the work place to use as material for dialogue, scenes, and characters.

There IS time. Award or no award.

* That was a long bath, I hear you say. Clarification: I wrote a little everytime I had a bath.

Image credit: .: Philipp Klinger :.

Stuck!

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Jul 27, 09 08:09 PM

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Right now, I'm stuck. I'm almost there. I have to get character A to a particular point in my novel - this is during rewrites - and I don't know how to do it. I have several options, but all of them seem phony. It feels like I'm filling a hole. I feel stuck.

Writer's block conjures images of the angst-ridden writer ripping pages out of his/her notepad, tossing them across the room. Or there's the other image of the writer staggering across the barren plains of his/her imagination, with nary a tree or pond in sight. But the truth is, writer's block happens by degrees. It can happen anytime, any place, yadda yadda. You can be strolling happily along the sunny boulevard of your narrative (I'll desist with the metaphors anon) and, all of a sudden, find yourself waist deep in quicksand.

How to get unstuck?

Some writers advocate taking a break. A day, a week, a month.... If you can afford the luxury, no harm setting down the laptop and going off the park for a bit of fresh air. I find a trip to the cinema helps, or music. But sometimes a longer break is needed. Sometimes you need to look at your work with fresh eyes, from a distance. When my work is too close, when I know it too well, my ability to edit goes down the toilet. Best to leave a good few weeks after a first draft before attempting draft two.

Other writers advocate pushing through it. Right now, I don't have the luxury of taking a break. I've got to keep writing until the finish line (although writing this blog is a bit of a compromise). I used to write when the notion took me. Problem was, the notion didn't take me every day. It was only when I started forcing myself to write whether I felt like it or not that I started to need to write everyday. It is, indeed, habit forming.

My preferred solution is changing the way you approach writing. I find that, if I write in the same way, same place, same time etc every day, I get bored. My writing dries up. Even if it's changing which corner of the room I sit in, it's a fresh approach. It shuffles things around enough for creativity to thrive. Routine, but with enough of a regular shake-up to keep things interesting.

How do you do it? How do you come 'unstuck'?

Let me know. For now, I'm pushing through. Though I might just try something different. Like standing on my head. Hmmmm.


Image credit: TeeRish

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Writing in Motion

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Jun 5, 09 09:28 PM

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I used to think that writers spent every day, all day, writing. In reality, that's sometimes the case. Most often, however, writing is done on the run.

This is an important skill that takes practice. Without it, many writers would never develop their art, never publish their work. I know a Hollywood screenwriter who wrote a feature-length script on Post-It notes whilst working as a hostess. Other writers talk of writing during their commute to work, whilst their children take naps, on lunch breaks, in traffic jams, at the kitchen sink while the kettle boils, on the toilet, in the bath, etc.

Writing in short stints can often prove tantalizing to one's Muse. There's a famous story of James Joyce who, having laboured day and night at his desk, produced a mere seven words. Sometimes, given too much time, the Muse snoozes. Writing is motion. Get your heart rate going, put your inspiration on a clock, and the results can be surprising.

It doesn't take a year-long sabbatical to produce an epic. It takes pen, paper, and persistence.

Image credit: echo_yy111

Save Salt

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on May 23, 09 08:05 PM

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Save Salt Publishing. One of the best independent publishers in the UK, Salt produces an impressive range of books, including poetry collections (by Luke Kennard, Melanie Challenger, Michael O'Brien and others) and short story collections (by Tania Hershman). The production of their books is fabulous, and the quality of the content, even better.

Salt is struggling. The recession is hitting publishing houses hard. Salt Director Chris Emery-Hamilton put a call out on Facebook for Salt lovers to buy more books; here's his recent call out:

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

As many of you will know, Jen and I have been struggling to keep Salt moving since June last year when the economic downturn began to affect our press. Our three year funding ends this year: we've £4,000 due from Arts Council England in a final payment, but cannot apply through Grants for the Arts for further funding for Salt's operations. Spring sales were down nearly 80% on the previous year, and despite April's much improved trading, the past twelve months has left us with a budget deficit of over £55,000. It's proving to be a very big hole and we're having to take some drastic measures to save our business.

Here's how you can help us to save Salt and all our work with hundreds of authors around the world.

JUST ONE BOOK

1. Please buy just one book, right now. We don't mind from where, you can buy it from us or from Amazon, your local shop or megastore, online or offline. If you buy just one book now, you'll help to save Salt. Timing is absolutely everything here. We need cash now to stay afloat. If you love literature, help keep it alive. All it takes is just one book sale. Go to our online store and help us keep going.

2. Share this note on your profile. Tell your friends. If we can spread the word about our cash crisis, we can hopefully find more sales and save our literary publishing. Remember it's just one book, that's all it takes to save us. Please do it now.

With my best wishes to everyone
Chris
Director
Salt Publishing
http://www.saltpublishing.com

Buy one book. At least one. You won't regret it.

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Here's a little recipe I like to share with my creative writing students:

Forget homemade cake. Betty Crocker cake mix produces the best cake in the world. No need for a flour tornado and mounds of butter: just add an egg, splash of oil and water, give it a stir, and after half an hour in the oven, you've got Nirvana in a dish.

Interestingly enough, there's no need for anyone to have to add more than water, but the Betty Crocker company found that early sales were bombing. Why? People wanted to contribute to the cake. Yeah, they wanted a short cut, but not too much of a short cut. They wanted the 'I made this' factor. Hence, the egg. Once people could start adding an egg or two to the mix, sales rocketed. And so, nearly a century since the company started, we still have Betty Crocker on our shelves at Tesco.

There's an important analogy for writers here: let the reader add their egg. Let them get involved, contribute, work stuff out, make their own connections. Don't tell them too much. Give them a way to put their hands around the dough of the plot, give it a good knead, feel its texture. Let them make shapes with it before rolling it out. Don't roll it flat for them. Let the reader pummel the dough with their own life experience, emotions, interpretations. Allow the work to breathe, expand, cool, set.

As a writer, it's important to think of the reader. Not necessarily in the commercial sense. That comes later. But good writing involves the reader; it gives the reader a way in, a chance to contribute, a feeling that they belong.

You might say that a good piece of writing is a soft, spongey cake. Not a burnt offering.


The Right Way to Write?

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Apr 25, 09 09:58 PM

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What is the 'right' way to write? Is there such a thing?

The advice for budding writers (and professionals) on how to actually go about writing creatively is as contradictory as putting a freezer in a greenhouse.

I remember a famous writer telling me that if at least one draft of a story wasn't completed within a few weeks, then the writer obviously wasn't passionate enough about telling it and, therefore, the whole thing was doomed to either (a) blandness or (b) never being written. Yet some of the best books have taken years, sometimes decades, to write.

Two other writers offered starkly different approaches to writing: one suggested working on about five different projects at the same time, insisting that the different characters, formats, genres, etc. will feed into each other and keep the writing fresh. Another said never, under any circumstances, attempt more than one book at a time.

Who's right?

The above are extreme examples of an otherwise broad range of writing approaches, but you get the idea. Every writer's Holy Grail is the 'right' way to write: a method that will achieve, first and foremost, a publishable piece of work, and secondly, a satisfying, sustainable writing practice.

Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way takes a holistic approach to the subject of writing. She advocates 'morning pages', or a daily practice of writing 3 pages in long-hand every morning, no matter what. These pages are geared towards emptying the brain of its 'internal chatter' (Cameron admits to filling her own pages with rants, shopping lists, and variations on the phrase 'I don't know what to write') so that the creative mind can be stimulated.

Cameron's idea of morning pages is hot stuff. Some writers, such as Noelle Sterne, praise them for combatting writer's block. Ellen Klages gives credit to her own 11-year effort at morning pages for doing more than shutting up her internal chatter: Her story 'A Taste of Summer' came straight out of her morning pages. Of her everyday scribblings, she says, 'It's all material.'

This notion hits a chord with me. Writing seems to be about the rule of 1000-1: 1000 pages of rubbish to every gem. I've deleted, scrumpled up, shredded, and actually burned writing that I deemed particularly tripe. But then there's the famous story of Stephen King's wife digging an early draft of 'Carrie' out of the bin. He'd obviously thought it wasn't very good; his wife (Tabby) argued otherwise. The rest, as they say, is history.

Even if everyone's laptop detritus isn't the next Booker prize winner, it's a good rule of thumb not to delete ANY writing material. This is, I'd say, the only 'right' way to write: to rewrite. Some pieces can sit for years before they're ready to be taken apart and rebuilt as shining masterpieces. Others might contain a single line that can be used later as the opening (or close) of a stunning story, script or poem. Mslexia, the women's magazine for writing, publishes a brief interview in every issue with a published writer, describing a book that she never published: interestingly, many of these writers admit to trawling old unpublished manuscripts for characters and plots with which to furnish works that went on to be published, win awards etc.

The 'right' way to write is a notion that I try to encourage writing students to think against. I spent years thinking I was doing it all wrong, having taken on advice from other writers that contradicted my own writing practice. It's taken an equal amount of years to trip over a nugget of sense: writing is as simple as pen and paper. Write ten books at a time, if that's your cup of tea. Write in the bath. Write all night long, every night, for months - it paid off for Cecelia Ahearn. Write only what you know, or write about what you don't know. Write entirely against your 'natural' style, according to Anne Enright.

But above all, if you must, write.

Image credit: celestindevilla

On the Short Story

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Apr 21, 09 09:28 PM

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A novel rid of the boring bits? An abridged tale? A narrative poem? Squashed fiction?

The short story has traditionally suffered from much confusion - much of it published - as to what it actually is. You'd think it would be pretty easy to figure out. It's a story that's short. The End. Or is it? Why is it short? Why doesn't something else happen after the final scene that leads on to another plot point and to more characters that complicate things and bring us to an ending some 100,000 words later? Is the short story deficient in something? Does the short story writer have less to say than, say, a screenwriter or novelist? Is it just a glorified scene?

I recently had the good fortunate to meet with Ra Page, editor of Comma Press, an independent publisher with a particular interest in the short story. He described the short story format in terms of what he calls the 'light bulb moment', or the revelation or shift that occurs at the end of the short story. This is where the short story diverges from the novel: loose ends can stay loose. Ambiguities that a novelist might baulk at can thrash their way right to the final full stop. Because in the short story, it's all about yanking the rug from under the reader's feet.

On the website www.shortstory.org.uk, Page puts it another way: 'Short stories excel through the things they don't tell you, the gaps in information; the darkness that bookends them so narrowly, making what you do get more vivid.' There are many examples of short stories that take this ethos to extremes, with interesting effects: Gerard Woodward's short story, 'A Tray of Ice-Cubes', tells the story of a 40-something bus driver who decides he's pregnant. Following an account of his 'labour', the story ends with his wife leaving out a tray of ice cubes overnight and finding, the next morning, a 'trembling, lively, blood-warm tray of water'. It's an ending that forces the reader to re-read or reflect upon the preceding story with acute attention to plot, characterization, and language, and it's the insights that come from this reflective reading that create the 'light bulb' moment that Page talks about. I can't think of a more engaging way to read.

So, for the avid reader, the short story might be a format to think about next time you opt for the latest Richard & Judy prompt. There's an argument that the short story is more fitted for the Twitter generation, but I don't think it's all about length: it's about the kind of reading experience that a good short story can offer, asking a little bit more of the reader and giving a little bit more in its interactive mode of storytelling. Or in other words: poetry, without a sonnet in sight.

Which reminds me: Biscuit Publishing have £1000 for grabs for the best short story under 750 words. Get cracking.

Image credit: NixieMichelle

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It's the million dollar question. OK, maybe not the million dollar question, but certainly one that brings in millions of pounds worth of student fees to UK universities. Creative writing - especially in the north east - is a healthy, happy, swarming marketplace. It's written somewhere (of course) that everyone has at least one book in them. Question is: can writing be taught? If so, how?

My position is that, yes, creative writing can be taught. It's a skill that can be refined and improved through a range of techniques and methods of instruction. As both an educator and practitioner, I get kicks out of the creativity of devising new ways of teaching creative writing. Having taught a range of methods - characterization, scene writing, writing the ending before the beginning, rewriting a popular narrative - I've a bag of new tricks up my sleeve for my students this September. With so many new developments in creative technologies, there's a world of stuff to learn about interactive fiction, blogging (memo to self), online narratives etc etc. And I've a new module on Public Textual Art coming up, which gets the students thinking off the page and into public spaces, considering how poetry and prose interact with their environments, and to get them thinking even more creatively about writing and space.

But how does the prospective writer choose a writing course? More exactly, does a writer need to be taught in order to 'qualify' as a writer? Would a one-day workshop suffice, or does it take a BA, MA, or - more recently - a PhD to become a writer?

I believe that is the (multi)million dollar question.

A tradition of literary giants would argue with the dogs on the street that writing cannot, in fact, be taught, and that all this accredited courses nonsense is a symptom of late capitalism.

On the other hand, my own experience proved otherwise. I was always forced to write. Not, alas, by some dramatically overbearing parent, but by an inner compulsion to put pen to paper. I remember spending half-term, aged 10, hammering at the keys of my grandparents ye olde typewriter, producing a (rubbish) novella in just under a week. I also remember writing letters to publishers in pencil, on lined school notepaper, around the same age, begging for my latest Care Bears novel to be published. I kid you not. A degree in English allowed me to take a module in poetry, lead by Carol Rumens. At last, I got real, face-to-face, professional feedback. They didn't have full-scale creative writing degree programmes back then, just the occasional semester-long module. But it was enough to get me writing the beginnings of my first poetry collection.

The 12 week course with Carol Rumens did not involve anyone dissecting the guts out of Shakespeare. We were never pointed in the direction of a 'winning writing formula', how to write a bestseller, or any one of the 'how to' titles that line the shelves at Waterstones. What the course involved was an introduction to a range of poetic forms, including examples, and a consideration of what form actually did, how it liberates the writer. Had I opted for a module on 18th century literature instead of poetry, I probably never would have encountered a triolet, a sestina, or a villanelle. In other words, the stuff I was writing at the time probably would have chugged on for another couple of years into the vacuous pits of cliché, at which point I probably would have packed in writing for good.

Can creative writing be taught? The question for me is, why should it be taught? And how? My initial response to this is - based on my own experience - that it should be taught in order to broaden the writer's horizons, as it were, in terms of form, structure, and - believe it or not - to enforce the importance of reading as well as writing. As far as the type of writing course goes, degree programme or week-long Arvon course - it's entirely up to you.

How should it be taught? Hmmm. That's a question with a million answers.

What are your views?

Image credit: Linda Cronin

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What is a poem?

By Carolyn Jess-Cooke on Mar 21, 09 08:49 PM

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According to the Princeton dictionary, a poem is 'a composition written in metrical feet forming rhythmical lines'. Googled, the word 'poem' throws up constellations of meanings: 'a written expression of emotion or ideas in an arrangement of words/verse most often rhythmically', says Shadow Poetry, and, in a poem by John Hegley, a poem 'is not a Banana'.

Good to know.

A quick glance at the history of poetry raises even more questions and possibilities. Way back in the good old 8th century B.C., we have Hesiod using poetry didactically, or to instruct and generally enlighten: 'Take nothing to eat or to wash with from uncharmed pots, for in them there is mischief.' In the 12th century A.D., the Italian poet Petrarch fell head over heels for a married lass called Laura, and subsequently established the sonnet as the way to express the pangs of unrequited love. In 1925, the American poet Archibald MacLeish wrote his 'Ars Poetica', outlining some of the functions of a poem, ending with the somewhat vague statement that 'A poem should not mean / but be'. More recently, the Irish poet Seamus Heaney spoke of 'digging' with his pen, or in other words, of digging into the past through poetry, while the Scottish poet Carol Anne Duffy stated that a poem is 'like a prayer'.

The consensus appears to be that a poem is - all formal elements aside - whatever you want it to be. Because it formally employs rhymes and rhythms, it shares a lot in common with music. Because it uses imagery and scenes, zooms the reader close-up to a bead of sweat on a man's forehead and takes us high into the heavens to look down on earth, it's also quite cinematc. And because it takes on a shape on the page, deliberately structured according to an aesthetic quality (John Hollander's 'Swan and Shadow' is a remarkable poem in the shape of a swan), a poem is also art. A range of public poems - such as Gwyneth Lewis' poem on the outside of the Wales Millennium Centre - reflect that particular attribute to its fullest capacity.

What I'm curious to know is what a poem means to you, right now, reading this online in the 21st century. Does a poem conjure images of something beyond your reach, like abstract art or a foreign language? Does it immediately bring the word 'Shakespeare' to mind? Or, like me, do you think of a poem as a way to make sense of an often senseless world, like Simon Armitage's poem 'Killing Time' which takes on such tangled social issues and events such as the Paddington Rail disaster and the Columbine High School massacre - few novels, films, or newspaper reports have been able to bring clarity to these events in quite the same way that Armitage's poem achieves.

I write poems mostly as answers to questions thrown at me by the processes of living. Confused, intrigued, anxious, mesmerised... whatever the quandary, the various elements of poetry enable me to find the richest answers to often unanswerable questions, permitting me to sing about them, visualise them, paint them, philosophize and narrativise about them in a form that can be as succinct as ten words.

The American Imagist poet William Carlos Williams puts it in a way I never could: 'a poem "must be real, not 'realism', but reality itself."' Influenced by the photographs of Alfred Stieglitz and Charles Sheeler, Williams' most famous poem The Red Wheelbarrow was written to bring its reader "to some approximate co-extension with the universe...to refine, to clarify, to intensify that eternal moment in which we alone live".

A combination, then, of art, photography, cinema, fiction, genealogy, and even prayer, the poem is an experience that can transcend any other artistic expression, most potently by combinging that most explosive of dualities: art and reality. As a young English undergrad at Queen's University in Belfast, I remember feeling like I'd just gazed upon the meaning of life when I read this poem by Williams, 'Flowers by the sea':

When over the flowery, sharp pasture's
edge, unseen, the salt ocean

lifts its form--chicory and daisies
tied, released, seem hardly flowers alone

but color and the movement--or the shape
perhaps--of restlessness, whereas

the sea is circled and sways
peacefully upon its plantlike stem

For me, this poem clicked something vital into place, and got me asking questions that I'm still asking today.

The question I'm asking now is: what is a poem to you?


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