The Magic of Writing

Porsha having a spell in a cauldron.
If you can get beyond Trick or Treating, the same schlocky horror films being trotted out on TV and the sight of Christmas already being on sale, this is a special time of year.

The Celts called this time Samhain (often pronounced Sow-een or Sow-en, although there are other interpretations) - one of the eight festivals that marked the wheel of the year.

Samhain marks summer's end, when winter begins (there were only two seasons). For Christians, 1st November is All Saints Day, or All Hallows Day, which is where Halloween gets its name.

The marking of a special day, ether personally or collectively, is a pause point in the flow of life. It can be a day of reflection, dedication, gratitude, celebration or commemoration. What matters is that we interrupt the usual rhythm and take ourselves into a different frame of mind. If we're lucky, we gain perspective. Sometimes, if we're really lucky, we might even make changes or decisions because we're able to see things more clearly.

For writers, tomorrow is the start of National Novel Writing Month, where intrepid writers - first timers and dedicated followers of the craft - commit (to themselves) to producing 50,000 words in a month. If you are signing up (don't worry, it's not a cult although it might seem like it on the forums!), take some time today to reflect on the writing you plan to start or continue. 

The tagline on the NaNoWriMo website reads: The world needs your novel. It's not the usual message that writers hear. More frequently we hear about the self-publishing vs traditional publishing debate, or the huge advances for famous or renowned authors (they're not the same thing!), or the swarm drone of social media that insists there is a fool-proof way to make your mark with your book - with any book in fact.

Put all that aside today. In between bobbing for apples, eating lurid gooey cakes, carving out pumpkins, dressing up as a skeleton or lighting candles, find time to consider that sentence: The world needs your novel. Treat that as your touchstone when you think about why you're taking up the pen or the keyboard. You will spend many hours writing and, eventually, editing. 

You will face setbacks, crises of confidence (in both directions), and you will take time away from other things to work on your book. Make your words count. Write honestly and fearlessly. Write from the depths of yourself - your truth, your pain, your longing and your deepest and most fragile joys. Create from your regrets, your secret triumphs and your wildest imaginings. Search your soul to produce a novel that the world truly needs; one that enriches, delights, challenges, terrifies, comforts, mesmerises... Make the world a different place and your readers different people for having had the good fortune to read the story you unearthed. That's what good writing is - life changing. When we're touched by a book we're touched forever. 

It doesn't matter if someone disagrees with your use of the comma and the semi-colon; not really. It doesn't matter if someone hates what you've written, or mocks it. Real writing makes people more real; it gives them that permission. That's the power of words. 

My challenge this November is to produce another 30,000 words for The Caretaker, the third in a Brit thriller series. Today, as you read this, I'll be in Glastonbury, Somerset. If you happen to be at Chalice Well Gardens around 11am and you see someone in quiet reflection, interspersed with feverish note-writing into an A4 notepad, that'll be me preparing for November 1st. By all means say hello!

Why I teach what I teach - Kath Morgan

After several dog walks over Praa Sands, where we'd thrash out our plot challenges, and talk about our latest submissions (followed by a recuperative trip to the pub for coffee and hot chocolate), Kath Morgan agreed to write me a guest post. Here, she explains how and why she does it her way.

As the new academic year kicks into gear, and people turn to their adult education brochure seeking something to do to brighten up the dark evenings, several potential students have approached me, wanting to know about my Creative Writing for Beginners course. One question that keeps cropping up in one guise or another is, why do I teach what I teach? You see, my course isn’t the usual beginners’ banquet of knocking out first drafts and sharing them with your supportive but essentially non-critical class mates. It’s more structured, skills focused, and challenging.

Over the past twenty years or so, I have attended more creative writing classes and workshops than I’m capable of listing. I’ve enjoyed them. I’ve been inspired by some fantastic facilitators, been supported and encouraged by some fabulous writing folk, and flirted with a vast range of fiction techniques, such as character, settings, dialogue, etc. But - and this is possibly because I’m a bit dense – I exited time after time, happy and stimulated but none the wiser about how, exactly, I could become a better writer. Or even a half decent one. I learned a snippet or two about writing short stories, a bit about writing for radio, a tad about writing poetry. I wrote a lot, and had flashes of inspiration during which I produced some pretty palatable stuff. But I couldn’t replicate the success, because I didn’t understand why one piece worked while another didn’t. I didn’t know what I was doing.

It stuck me that there must be more to this fiction writing lark than these classes and workshops were letting on, at least in any form that I could access. I wasn’t willing to buy into the popular belief that good writers are simply born able to do it, that you are either born lucky or not. Truth is, I don’t like elitism in any form, so I threw myself into the task of discovering the elusive secret of writing good fiction. I read every book on the craft I could lay my hands on. I joined a couple of hard hitting critique groups and worked diligently on my (pretty terrible at that stage) first novel. I returned to University and took an MA in Professional Writing. I learned a lot.

Most of all I learned that the actual craft of writing good fiction is something that can and should be taught, and can and should be learned. We all possess various degrees of natural talent. To make the most of our allotted portion of it, we need to add craft and practice to our bundle.  So when, seven years ago, I was asked to run a creative writing course in Falmouth for the Cornwall Adult Education Service, I decided I would apply everything I had learned in my previous twenty years as a teacher to ‘teach’ the skills it had taken me so long to learn myself. This approach won't be everyone's cup of tea, but what is?

I designed a year-long course that takes a beginner writer on a roller coaster ride, by the end of which they will be armed with the fundamental skills they need to become a good writer. They will know how to create 3D characters that defy stereotype, how to bring settings to life, how to select and control point of view, how to write dialogue that either illuminates character or advances plot (and preferably both), how to structure a plot that resonates, what on earth show and tell is all about, and a whole host of ways to tighten their use of language. In short, they will have a clear understanding of how to write a good short story. No plays, no poems, no travel features. My aim is not to touch on a lot of things, but to teach one thing well: depth rather than breadth. The skills, once learned, transfer across genres. I want to enable my students to tackle their writing development from a position of knowledge, not ignorance. What they then do with that knowledge is up to them. That’s when the work really starts.


The Value of Value

Ah, Sunday nights. Stanley Turrentine is caressing the speakers, my ginger beer bottle is empty and the rain is tip-tapping on the attic window. It must be time for some philosophising!

Some years ago (i.e. in the old days), I was a product launch manager for a project that wasn't going well. In fact, this particular project was in such poor health that - for a number of reasons - I was already planning the pre-launch recovery and the post-launch recovery too. While I was running around from team to team, trying to get people to do what they should have been doing the first time, a senior manager called me over and commiserated with a smile, adding, "When you're up to your arse in crocodiles, it's hard to remember you're supposed to be cleaning the pool."

Writers not only create fictional worlds for our characters, we also create fictional worlds for ourselves - whether we write fiction or not. Largely self-motivated (allowing for bills, luxuries and kudos), we set goals and decide on destination points that are really, often, quite arbitrary.

That may sound like a weakness, but it's also a strength. Because, when we recognise that our goals are literally that - our goals - we are at liberty to change them. In other words, it's the value we place upon them rather than any objective value.

Ever been here?

Halfway done novelists want to finish their novels.

First drafters want to get through a complete edit.

Third drafters want an agent, or a publisher.

Contracted writers want a lucrative deal, or significant sales - preferably both.

Second novelists want book number two to be better than book one, and better received.

Every aspiration is perfectly reasonable, but how often do we examine what lies behind it?

Here's a case in point. I'm also a freelance writer and one of the sites I use is People per Hour. (You may have noticed the ad on this blog!) Their blurb suggests that, on average, Cert5 writers earn four times more than Cert4 writers. And, by inference, Cert4ers do better than Cert3ers. 

I mention all this because I recently reached Cert4. The algorithm is a dynamic one so here's a screenshot in case I've slipped back a little by the time this post is out there. 

Cert4 is good, but what does it actually mean? I've seen the pages of some Cert5 writers (what, like you thought I wouldn't check out the profiles of competitors?) and some of them charge £3 per hour. So Cert5 doesn't guarantee a high rate. I've also seen some jobs go to a Cert2 writer even when a Cert5 has also submitted a bid. So Cert5 doesn't guarantee a competitive advantage. 

As the man said on TV recently: correlation does not mean causality.

To return to the world of books, goals are important. Without them, we'd never get past the tyranny and adventure of the first blank page. We may lust after or lament the achievement of others, but there's no value in that. It gains us nothing, and for every writer looking at the rung above there are countless more looking up at them.

What values then might be valuable to most if not every writer?

Here are a few ideas...
1. Value your words by getting them down, no matter how frivilous, or how amateur they seem to you at the time.
2. Value your time by carving out writing time, every day without exception.
3. Without exception, always have some way of capturing your thoughts - a pen and paper, recorder, tablet, till receipt and pencil, or whatever you can think of.
4. Think of the journey ahead, but stay in the moment. Books are written page by page. Sometimes it flows like honey; other times it's like hand-to-hand combat with the English language.
5. The English language is your friend. Its rich dversity gives you limitless ways to express yourself. Revel in that and strive to find and express your own voice.

None of the above values will guarantee you literary success, happiness, fulfilment or a contract. They will, however, make you a writer. And you can't put a value on that.