Wednesday, 29 May 2013

Arvon: the short story with Claire Massey and Nicholas Royle

Lumb Bank: inspiration inside and out

Another Arvon course, another leap forward in my thinking and my writing. This happens every time I go on a residential course like this one, and yet each time I am surprised by how much I learn – from the tutors, from other writers, from observing my own writing in a different space. Combined with the energy and inspiration that seventeen productive writers can generate, the effect is overwhelmingly positive.
Rather than waffling about inspiration, I thought I’d share a couple of the exercises that the excellent tutors Claire Massey and Nicholas Royle (both of whom teach creative writing outside of Arvon) used in their workshops. I do so because I believe all writers need to shake up their approach sometimes, and being pushed to do something you wouldn’t normally with your writing invariably frees you up, mentally, from familiar patterns and ways of thinking that you have started to take for granted.

In the first workshop of the week Nick used an exercise based on a book by Jo Brainard called I Remember. It was simple enough – we all wrote for 15 minutes, beginning each sentence with ‘I remember’ and describing whatever our memories pushed up at that moment. Apart from being a great way to get to know a room full of people very quickly, listening to others read out what they’d written reminded me that other people’s lives can be fascinating, or moving, or shocking, or funny. It is the details that work. Someone described seeing their father cry under a strip-light in the kitchen, and as Nick pointed out, it was the strip-light that brought the scene to life, even given in a single sentence.

I never deliberately write about my own life in my stories, and I found it uncomfortable to read out my own ‘I remembers’. However, the laughs and the silences taught me that what is familiar to me through memory or habit can make for great story detail for others, and there is a lot to be said for Nick’s own approach of using real places, people and events in fiction. Truth behind a detailed depiction can give it an extra impact, even if the context has changed.

Claire asked us to think about motifs or images that recur in the work of writers we love, as well as in our own stories. This was tough to do, but as we collected all our ideas together it was fascinating to see how many came from the natural world – birds, paths, rivers, shells, feathers, stones. As humdrum as these may all seem, it was both challenging and enlightening to pick two or three from other people and try to write a story with them. Claire also asked us to draw maps, individually and as a group, which proved to be a wonderful way to stimulate the imagination; I will definitely be doing this for the world of my own short story collection.

We worked our way through many other useful exercises over five days, and the overall effect for me is that I have not been able to stop writing since I returned to ‘real life’ in London. Courses with Arvon or Ty Newydd (National Writers' Centre for Wales) are a big investment, moneywise, but there are bursaries available and if you are looking for a way to turbo-power your writing, they are more than worth it, and that’s not even counting all the wine and cake. Yet again, I have come home a better (and slightly fatter) writer.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Jess Richards, author of Snake Ropes, on the writing process

An island 'just off the map'

 Jess Richards writes astonishing prose about astonishing things, creating worlds in which “anything can come alive” as Richard Beard put it, introducing her to an audience at a NAW masterclass this week at the Free Word Centre.  Jess talked generously and honestly about how she wrote her two novels, Snake Ropes and Cooking with Bones, including some intriguing details about how she connects with her characters. Here are some of the insights Jess offered into her personal writing process; I for one found some of them familiar, some of them useful, so hopefully you will too.

Trusting your characters

Jess began writing Snake Ropes with only her main character, Mary, and a problem that Mary had to overcome (her little brother has gone missing). She then wrote and wrote, following Mary around her world looking for a solution, but waiting for Mary to show her what it would be rather than vice versa. As she said, this requires enormous trust. It also involves a lot of writing – she wrote 200,000 words before she found out what the ending would be. Jess admitted to a crisis of faith in Mary around 150,000 words, knowing as she did that Mary was an unreliable narrator who had lied to many people, and might well be leading her astray. She kept going, and it paid off; not all novels have to be planned.

Sense of Place

Snake Ropes is set on an island ‘just off the map,’ similar to, but not the same as, some Scottish islands. As Jess put it, even an invented place must have its history, geography, myths and legends. Her way of immersing herself in the place was to dedicate a notebook entirely to it, using drawings, cuttings and notes to add details whenever they struck her. This was a place to record anything her character Mary suddenly revealed to her, such as who her mother was and how she died.

Getting stuck and unstuck

Sometimes, Jess said, Mary would go quiet on her, or she would have no impulse about where the twins in Cooking with Bones would go next. Exercises she used to get unstuck included ‘jumping heads’ – changing the point of view from which you are thinking about events to another character; swapping expression – from thought to dialogue, perhaps; and writing a great big lump of one thing – dialogue, description, action, thought – and then breaking it down later. When you cannot get at what your character is feeling, she also suggested shifting into the first person, and then quickly rewriting in third.

Surplus minor characters

If they are not up to much, merge their roles into one character and see what happens!


This I found surprising, but revelatory. Jess renamed the character Maya in Cooking with Bones seven times during drafting. She said that by changing the name, she was able to see the character in a different light, or bring out another essential element of her personality that she had neglected before. Names really bother me when I’m writing, I spend ages over them, so I’m really going to think about this one.


Ask yourself: what is the absolute heart of this story? Anything that doesn’t feed into this can go. This is advice that can be applied strictly to short stories and more loosely to novels (where adding surrounding detail may carry more weight). I’ve heard similar advice from Adam Marek, who described putting some rocks into a jar (the story’s core) and then filling in the spaces with pebbles and sand (all the extras).

Cutting material

It’s hard. Make it easier  by creating a folder called ‘cuts’ and just bung everything in there; that way it is not lost. Jess said she had turned much of this material into short stories or flash fiction, or found other ways to use it.


After 200,000 words of following her character, Mary, Jess was worried she was on a wild goose chase looking for Mary’s brother. She jumped ahead of the narrative and started trying out endings, waiting for the intuition from Mary that one of them was the right one. She got there in the end, after six or so tries, even though the right one was not the resolution she was expecting.

Thursday, 9 May 2013

Lorca, folk song and poetry - another post on writing and music

Cante jondo: primitive and universal, like the sea

 On the eve of a trip to Spain, it seems a good moment to write about Frederico Garcia Lorca and his literary engagement with folk music.

I had been thinking about analogies between the way musical composers use folk music and the way writers use folk tales in their new works respectively, mostly researching Bartok, which I wrote about in an earlier post. Quite separately I picked up Lorca’s book of poems, Romancero Gitano (Gypsy Ballads), only to learn later that he spent time with Manuel de Falla collecting Spanish folk songs just as Bartok did in Eastern Europe and beyond. De Falla used these in his own musical works, as did Debussy, but Lorca turned them into poetry. His Poema del Cante Jondo (Poem of the Deep Song) is a direct homage to the profound folk music – cante jondo that prefigured flamenco and was itself influenced by Arabic and Indian music, brought to Andalusia by gypsies.

It is fascinating to uncover what Lorca perceived in this music, and how he transfigured it into poetry that has only its own internal music, no accompanying melody. There is a wonderful lecture by Lorca in translation here that expresses, with its own poetic phrasing, what he found in cante jondo (and from which I have taken the following quotes). He says “Cante jondo is like the trilling of birds, the cry of the cockerel, and the natural music of woods and streams,” describing it as “bearing in its notes the naked shiver of emotion of the first oriental races” and as “the only genre on our continent that preserves in all its purity, as much structurally as stylistically, the primary qualities of the primitive songs.”
It is the primal qualities of cante jondo, its unabashed wails in the grips of failed love, suffering and death, that seduce Lorca. These are, of course, universals of life, and much of his description of this music would make sense if turned to folk tales, another bed of universal themes, primitive desires and fears. There are some cante jondo recordings here on Youtube; I found it a bit like Portuguese fado but more accessible, perhaps because of the close connection to familiar flamenco. It can sound overwrought to the English ear, and certainly that is the impression you would get of Lorca’s Poema del Cante Jondo if you only read the translation into English.

Here are a few sample lines: ‘The cry leaves a shadow/of cypress upon the wind./ (Leave me here in this field,/weeping)’. So far, so gothic romance. But in Spanish the sounds of the lines have an internal sympathy and symmetry that work as effectively as rhyme to hold the image together and, somehow, make a kind of sense that allows the melodrama to exist more comfortably: ‘El grito deja en el viento/una sombra de cipres./ (Dejadme en este campo/llorando).’ Maybe that is the nature of the Spanish language, rather than of Lorca’s use of it in poetry; I have not read enough Spanish poetry to know! But having carried around a negative preconception that Spanish poetry would be severely limited by the smaller vocabulary and lack of multiple synonyms compared with English, I was amazed by the effects of the sounds on the way in which I absorbed the content. Much of Lorca’s poetry does not rhyme exactly, but holds together in sounds a little like a song.

The cante jondo songs do have lyrics, but I am curious about how Lorca has tried to incorporate the feel of the songs, melody and delivery and all, into these poems, rather than simply transcribing words. I hope to figure some of this out by reading them more and listening. I’m sure that, just as with Bartok, there is an analogy to be found here between Lorca absorbing an essence, or idea, of these folk songs, which he is able to transmit in poetry, and the similar osmotic magic by which writers absorb folktales and then find their essences colouring their new work.