More writing advice from Nina Milton, tutor at the Open College of Arts, about characterization. If you're thinking about doing a writing course, do have a look at this writing blog:
You want your readers to be driven by emotion as they read, and in fiction it’s the characters who engage that emotion. For this to happen, the reader has to be trapped in a sort of magic…temporarily, he must believe the character is real.
To read more, click on the link; weareoca - the-secret-life-of-characters
Friday, 9 October 2015
Monday, 5 October 2015
I've been away from my desk. I've been away from my everyday life. I've been on a journey…to Somerset, to the spirit world, to an altered reality of love and light and fun...
In Dundon, a small village on the Somerset Moors – regular readers will already know how I love those moors – there is a place called Earth Spirit, where an original long barn and farm outbuildings have been turned into a centre for spiritual growth.
Almost seventy shamans gathered here, to share their love of shamanism. They came from all corners of the UK and beyond, and from many shamanic cultures. Some were young and fresh-faced – some were grey-haired but still keen-witted.
The first thing I was asked to do, as I arrived on Monday afternoon, was sign a glittery homemade 80th birthday card for Leo Rutherford, one of the grand elders of shamanic practice in Britain, and founder of The Eagle’s Wing Centre. Leo led us in drumming and chanting later on that week, and I had trouble keeping up with his energy levels.
Leo wasn't the only fit, active grizzle-bearded elder. John is still building and re-erecting stone circles (although he admitted he mostly gave directions nowadays), and
And so to our opening ceremony, which set the feel of the gathering wonderfully. First Nick Breeze Wood, the Welsh-based shaman who edits Sacred Hoop magazine, lit Grandfather Fire, calling down the spirits to protect and guide us through our gathering. This fire was kept alight, despite downpours, throughout the four days, and each morning, I’d go across the damp grass to give offerings to it. Grandfather Fire particularly like tobacco, chocolate and leaves soaked in vodka, but seemed also happy to accept scented herbs. We retuned to the barn, and Sika, a musician and artist, took us directly into an altered state of consciousness with the primordial sounds from his range of didjeridoos and other indigenous musical instruments. He played for what must have been hours, seemingly without breath, but it felt like no time…all time. By then it was late at night (for me, anyway!) and I fell into my bed and slept deeply, forgetting all my dreams as they passed by me.
|The barn, with Sika|
(background of the picture)
Each person at the gathering will have their own favourite moments and memories, and for me, there are three – morning drumming, the Medicine Wheel Workshop and the Storytelling Evening.
We’d most of us brought our drums, and right throughout the gathering, there was drumming, stomping, chanting and singing. What else would you expect from a bunch of shamans? When Nick Breeze Wood opened the start of that first full day with a burst of communal drumming, instantly, I found myself on a journey. As I drummed in the Earth Spirit Barn, I was also in my grove of trees, with my guardian, Esmeralda. She is an elder, a crone with wrinkled skin, but she is also a mother, who, in the 15 years I’ve worked with her, has constantly suckled a baby to her breast – a tiny, naked boy with golden skin. As I drummed, she plucked the baby from her breast and handed it to me. I was shocked – I didn’t know if I wanted responsibility for a spirit baby, but I guess after 15 years, she might have been a bit tired herself! Over the course of the four days, the Golden Boy grew, until he was, indeed, fifteen, and has become a spirit guide to me in his own right.
I had always wanted to learn more about the medicine wheel. I had a Celtic apprenticeship in shamanism with Caitlan Matthews, so most of the imagery and symbolism I encounter on my shamanic journeys is based around the beliefs of the Ancient Britons, and I wanted to know more about this Native American way of working. Carrie Jost is a healer who uses the medicine wheel in her work. She showed us how it can shift energy – ridding us of bad and shoring up good. She got us all working with these invisible but strongly felt energies. Carrie had created a circle on the barn floor, showing the 8 compass points. We were asked to walk around the outside of the circle, to find a comfortable place in the room. Everyone seemed to find that easy to do, but then we had to find a place of discomfort. I was dubious, but when I reached the south-east, I instantly felt shivery, that sensation one gets when one is about to incubate a cold. I hadn’t believed I would find such a place, but I was standing in it, and despite the fact that there were over 30 people in the group, I was the only person standing at this compass point. Carrie held us in these ‘uncomfortable places’, asking us to send energy around the circle in an 8-pointed star. When the people of the East sent their energy to me, I felt it as the colour of a carnelian crystal, with filled me with courage, and heard a low humming sound that vibrated right at the base of my spine. It warmed me wonderfully.
The other huge delight for me was the storytelling evening with Andrew Steed. I love myth, legend and fairy tales, and Andrew’s retelling of the story of Tuireann (Tyren), who was magically transformed by a jealous fairy-woman into a wolf-hound held us all spellbound. But it was his ‘reclaimed’ stories that hit the spot with me. No, these ‘reclaimed’ stories aren’t, as I expected, stories found in cobwebbed libraries, or scratched in pictures on the wall of ancient tombs, they are the stories of ourselves, that we hate other people retelling, because they make us blush and duck behind the sofa. To boost our self esteem, Andrew recommends we turn these ‘you’ll never guess what he did’ stories into something that can make our friends laugh with us, instead of at us. I have several reclaimed stories brewing, believe me!
It was a sad moment, on Thursday, when we scraped the ash from the still burning Grandfather Fire, and let him die. But, just as we were getting all pumped up with our grand closing ceremony, Doris arrived in our midst. Doris is a sacred clown. She’s got a bit of a lady-beard, and forgot to take the curlers out of her hair that morning, and was carrying a gaily painted watering can and a microphone that didn’t work (an ongoing joke during the gathering). She read us her rhyming account of the gathering. Sixty-plus shamans doubled up with laughter.Thank you Rachel; Doris successfully pricked our high-flying bubbles and brought us down to earth with a chuckle.
|Churchyard Yew, Dundon|
To quote Leo Rutherford from his book, Your Shamanic Path (2001, Piaktus)…The struggle to make sense of life in the third-dimensional spacesuit we call a body is as important today as at anytime. One could almost say even more so now that in the ‘developed’ part of the world we are polluting our home planet and upsetting the balance of nature and our atmosphere as never before. We desperately need a path that can bring us back into contact and communion with the primal elemental forces of life...
If you ever go to Dundon, do drop in on the churchyard, as I did, to see the magnificent yew, or walk the surrounding hills and find the iron-age hill-fort. And maybe spend a quiet hour in a nature reserve, listening to and watching the beauty that is our natural world.
Monday, 7 September 2015
|A Turkish police officer carries Aylan Kurdi |
who drowned in a failed attempt to
sail to the Greek island of Kos.
A photograph on the front page of newspapers, showing a tiny child lying in the surf. Imagery is the most immediate ways to make a shift, to change hearts, minds, lives. After seeing the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the rhetoric transformed. People thought again. Governments finally got their fingers out. It is quite remarkable how a visual image can capture and express deep emotion and tell vast stories to make a difference to lives.
|Seven Books that Entirely Change Me|
But although imagery can be life-changing, it’s long been my belief that novels are like that too. If a writer wants to make a statement that will change people’s minds, they are better writing a story, not an article; a novel, not a treatise.
Below, I’ve chosen seven novels that completely changed me in some way – my thinking, my approach to life, or my perception of the world.
One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, published in 1962. During the seventies, when Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was hitting headlines, I read most of his works. Some, like The Gulag Archipelago, are long and involved, and written to make people aware of what was going on in the USSR. But one of his smaller novels hit me the hardest. Denisovich is an account of life in a forced labour camp, and therefore of Stalinist repression. The book graphically illustrates what was happening behind the iron curtain – why people were thrown into camps and what happened to them there. Probably more than his longer non-fiction accounts, this was the book that forced the West to stop ignoring violent breaches of human rights behind the “iron-curtain.” Strangely, though, what struck me about it was its optimism, its emphasis on hope. I most clearly remember the scenes when, for instance, Ivan managed to gain a cigarette and inhaled the sweet smoke deep into his lungs. It seemed to sum up how humans will always seek something to cling to and make the most of the tiniest moments of joy.
Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie (1981). I read this directly after Satanic Verses. At that time I was writing short stories and thinking of how I could write a novel for children. Rushdie's books made me realize anything was possible. Okay, I cannot reach Rushdie’s dazzling heights of invention and literary prose, but I loved how he used his own personal experiences, while pushing the novel form to extremes. Rushdie was born in 1947, a year before the transition to independence in India, and used that moment in time to create a dazzling, game-changing novel of a young man born at the very moment of Indian independence. “Let your mind go,” Rushdie seemed to be saying directly to me, “and you can write the things you want to say in the way you want to say them.”
Candide by François-Marie Arouet, also known as Voltaire, was published in 1759 during the European 'enlightenment’ and at the time was banned as blasphemous, and politically seditious – Candide pokes a lot of fun at the establishment of the day. Voltaire was a sharp witty man, and (the two don’t often seem to go together) a philosopher, who strongly opposed certain Enlightenment ideas about social class. Candide is a naive young man who grows up in a baron’s castle. His tutor Pangloss teaches him that this is “the best of all possible worlds.” Candide is discovered kissing the baron’s daughter, his secret love, and is expelled from his home. He wanders the world with Pangloss, surviving the most awful disasters and tortures, while Pangloss continues to describe life as ‘the best of all possible worlds”. Shortly after reading this novella, I saw the film Oh, Lucky Man, staring Malcolm McDowell, a sprawling musical intended as an allegory on life in the 20th century. I could not help linking the two stories. I still to this day believe that the screenplay takes its inspiration from Candide.
|"Marley's Ghost", |
original illustration by John Leech
from A Christmas Carol
A Christmas Carol. Did you know that when Dickens wrote this little novella in 1843 as part of his ‘Christmas Series’, it changed all our Christmases? Traditional practices were going out of fashion at the time, and the book revived them. Groaning boards of turkey and iced cake, presents, dancing and mistletoe were all saved for our enjoyment…or not! At the same time it was a clear comment on early Victorian society, as when the Ghost of Christmas Present reveals two children saying; “This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased.”
For me, the book was a tradition in itself. Every year, as my children grew, I’d read it, over four or five nights, ending the story with Scrooge’s transformation on Xmas Eve. Heady days!
Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. I’ve chosen this book from the series because its publication in 2002 was the moment things changed in the children’s book market. Children had always been ready love nr newly-pressed books, but these books, including the first three of JK's series, were usually about 200 pages long. Goblet weighed in at more than 600 pages and kids gobbled it up. Publishers finally realized that children loved to read and could read enormous books, as long as the words on the page moved and excited them.
Rowling has her critics, but she is the master of 3 important areas of writing; she can extend plotting, theme and structure to allow seven long books to reach their own climax yet take you on to a final, gripping finale where all important threads are tied. She can handle a vast cast of characters, in which the least has a personality potentially as big as the protagonist. And she makes you laugh.
The Alchemist. I read this a long time ago, loving it to bits and lending to everyone as something they must read. This book is an epic allegory about finding and pursuing your purpose in life and has millions of readers across the world for a reason – it’s inspiring and motivating. Published in 1988 by Paulo Coelho, it was apparently written in 2 weeks, because the writer had ‘found it in his soul’. It follows the journey of Santiago, a shepherd boy, who journeys to Egypt to seek a promised treasure. As he moves across the desert and through the market places, he meets a series of people, who, to me, represented all humanity. Its basic plot, with its remarkable ‘twist in the tale’ is ages old, though, apparently first seen in The Thousand and One Nights.
Recently, I read it aloud to my husband who enjoyed it as much as I had. But a strange thing happened as I read it again. Perhaps I’d grown older and more cynical, but I saw nothing but flaws – simplistic, artless writing and prosaic plotting. Don’t let that put you off reading it. At the right moment in your life, it is a tremendous book that can mean everything.
Lord of the Rings by professor J R R Tolkien, published between 1954 and 55. I’ve read this book several times, often just turning to the songs printed within it and singing them. I’ve also loved the BBC Radio 4 serialization, which took most of those songs and put them to music, and the wonderful trilogy from Peter Jackson.
At the time of first reading as a girl, the book excited my young imagination. I use to believe it had changed the writing landscape – no fantasy novel had ever been written before this and no writer would ever create something so wonderful again. That 1st belief hold true, I think – there isn’t a writer alive today unaware of its impact, but probably not the 2nd and 3rd. Of course it wasn’t the first fantasy novel, and although for many years it was the best, Land of Ice and Fire may now have claim to a similar crown.
|Published in 1956 |
with its iconic cover
by Edward Balden
The Flight from the Enchanter by Iris Murdoch. This was her second book, but it was my first introduction to my number-one writing hero, which made me long to also write about love and power and goodness and beauty and what makes up a human being. Suddenly, at the age of twenty, I wanted to say great things, like Murdoch, who, being a professor of philosophy, has a far greater claim to be able to write such things than I will ever have. However, if we can’t be inspired by the great exemplars, what hope is there?
Once I’d put down Enchanter, I went in search of all her other books, and then lay in constant wait for her to write the next, which she did, for years, every 18 or so months. Only her very last book, written while in the grip of Alzheimer’s, is not among my very favourite reads to this day. Enchanter isn’t her best book, for me that is The Sea The Sea, but it was the first I read. I loved Iris Murdoch from that moment on, and reading her made me think more deeply, write more avidly and dream great dreams.
Sunday, 30 August 2015
Tuesday, 25 August 2015
Writing about character is something that new and established writers alike are always thinking about and returning to.
This week, I'm guest blogging at the Open College of the Arts, looking at how to write your characters so that they live on the page for the reader.
|Courtesy of the Open College of the Arts.|
In this monthly series of blogposts on Writing Skills (both the course and the subject) we’ve been concentrating on various aspects of Part One, making the most of early strategies such as employing speedwriting, using notebooks, compiling a commonplace book and learning how to ‘zone in’ when describing. It’s time to move onto Part Two of Writing Skills, which is all about character.…
click here to read the full blogpost
Nina Milton is a novelist and short story writer who is also a tutor, assessor and course writer with the Open College of the Arts, who offer a full honours degree course for writers. You can do this degree, or any of the courses, from your home, and be guaranteed that your tutor will be a working artist.
click here to find out more about the OCA
Monday, 17 August 2015
It’s a dreaded disease; a malaise that creeps up behind writers and strikes them down. Some develop it as a chronic condition – they stutter in their writing, give it up, start again, stop again. This goes on for years, until their files are full of half-finished stuff they’ll never show a soul.
Others get a Malarial form – weeks, months, sweating it out beneath a gauzy net, drinking nothing but tonic water and suffering terrible hallucinations, where the laptop gets up and does a mocking little dance, singing ‘Can’t Write? Won’t Write? What a dunce you are!’
But the most serious form of Writer’s Block is the sudden fatality, when someone has been writing well, really getting on with something quite meaty, when, out of the blue they find they’re incubating a sudden need to read and re-read what they already have, changing nothing more than the odd phrase. After this incubation period, the disease viscously attacks the writing mind. The word count drops dangerously, the eyes swell up and the fingers shake whenever the sufferer is near any form of writing machine…even a ball point pen.
In worse case scenarios, the sufferer is often known barely ever lift a pen again.
But, wait up! A cure has been developed, and is now readily available, in seven easy to access therapeutic stages.
Even better, it costs next to nothing in drug treatments and no radical surgery is necessary – well, not until you get to stage seven, at least.
ONE: REPLACEMENT THERAPY
Put away the laptop and get out a good book. Even better, spend a delicious afternoon browsing a second hand book shop or a musty-scented local library. Come home with a tall pile of books. Make sure all of them have tempted you to start reading before you chose – don’t chose a single worthy tome. Once home, switch off the TV and open your first choice. Read until you cannot bear it any longer; read until you just have to write.
Keep a notepad and pen nearby, but out of sight, just in case the urge takes you suddenly.
TWO: AVERSION THERAPY
|Check out my Open College of the Arts |
Post about this subject
Aversion therapy was used to try to scare a person away from bad habits by submitting them to an onslaught of that thing and making them hate it. Writer’s aversion therapy works in the complete opposite way; by forcing yourself to write with freedom, you will learn to love it! Free-writing has been used for decades as a way of liberating the stuck writing mind. When free-writing, you start and do not stop until ‘time’ is up (either a phone alarm or a pre-chosen number of words or pages). The reason you write freely is because with free-writingyou can discard the stuff you don’t want to keep, so it doesn’t matter what you write.
Once you start writing, you do not stop, correct your work or cross things through. If you run out of things to say, you must keep on writing by choosing a repetitive phrase such as ‘what shall I write, what shall I write’ – surprisingly it won’t be long before you start again!
Can Write! (Check my post for the Open College of the Arts for further information)
Choose a topic that interests you and use it as your title e.g. ‘Meteor Showers’…‘Knitting the Left Sleeve’. Get going with action or imagery.…I’m lying on a sun lounger, but there’s no sun. Only a clear, black sky above, filled with stars…I’m casting on for the wrist ribbing. I’m using soft yarn, in an electric blue…Use memory, thought processes and associations to keep writing. If the topic changes or disappears, don’t worry. When memory runs out, make it up.
THREE: GET SOME COUNSELING
Get someone to tell you what to write. I’m going to do that now, but you will need a constant supply of being told for this therapy. If you’ve got the beans, pay someone to tell you what to write – register for a writing course or workshop. If you don’t have the readies, use the competition circuit to get you writing, choosing competitions that give explicit instructions....write a story for children of 7+...or want a themed story...Write a story set in Acton Stanley...
The secret here is to not try to write to win the comp – that’s the sure way to exacerbate the symptoms you’re trying to eliminate. In other words, hoping to win will make you dry up. Trying to fulfill the brief will give you the narrow window that will fill you with ideas and confidence.
There is an ultimate form of this therapy. It does strike terror at the heart of all writers, but it can work in extreme circumstances. It is called NANOWRIMO. It makes you write a novel in a month. Yep, extreme. But very effective for total writer’s block condition.
To get you going straight away, start with this:
Do you recall your 5th, 10th or 15th birthday? Chose the one that tugs most emotionally at you and start to recount the facts, describing what you remember. Then start guessing at the bits you don’t remember. Then start flying away, making up anything that either could have happened, or actually would never have happened.
FOUR: CPR: CREATIVE PENSHIP RESUSCITATION
If you’ve started something that has now entirely dried up, you may be facing ‘the fear’ that often comes mid-piece. This could be any form of writing – you could be half way through a short story, a novel, a biography, or even a poem. Not being able to make it to the end starts out as frustrating, but very soon your core temperature starts to rise and you’re in a fever of fear; the fear of not ever being able to complete a project.
Leaving gaps can crash-start writing that has got stuck by allowing you to move through places where you’ve ground to a halt. Mark the place you stopped in the work with a couple of notes in the text, such as Trevor should come in here, carrying a severed arm. (But let’s be fair, that’s NOT the scene you’re going to get trouble with!)
Now move on. Writing in note form until you can create the next full piece of narrative writing is perfectly fine. Writing something that should occur further on in this piece is also okay – even better, it’s achievable! Tell yourself these things, affirm them as you sit down to write. Using free-writing will really help with leaving gaps, so always start with this technique.
FIVE: GROUP THERAPY
Join a writing group.
Can Write! The easy (almost the lazy) way is to join an online group that wishes to share and critique their work. For starters, try http://www.critiquecircle.com/Default.asp
http://www.writerscafe.org/ http://www.booksie.com/ or https://www.authonomy.com/. The harder way is to face the people you’re going to read to. Writers’ groups vary tremendously, and it can be fun just tasting and trying the ones in your area to find out where you fit in best. Your local library will have some details, but also check online. Don’t forget that writer’s groups are also about having fun, meeting like-minded people and talking about the craft, as well as just getting an audience for your stuff. You might not be asked to read out very much, and that might suit you well if you still feel a but ‘blocked’, even after moving through the first four therapies. If you can’t tolerate the idea of a group or online presence, try finding a writing buddy. One other writer, who will share work, failure, stories, chat, sorrow and getting unblocked with you. (See my post about writing buddies)
SIX: GET AN IDEAS TRANSFUSION
- Go for a walk alone (or with your dog)
- Visit a local art gallery or exhibition
- Browse the shops (okay, book shops, of course, but branch out, try pet stores, craft fayres, ToysRUs)
- Sit in a park, cafe or sporting event and people watch
- Go for a scenic drive; use the train, bus or get in the back of the car
- Watch a film with a great plot and amazing characters
- Go to the theatre, comedy club or even the opera.
SEVEN: TRY A SEX CHANGE
Okay, you’ve got this far, tried all other six therapies, and you still can’t write. You need to lock yourself away. Preferably in a place where three meals are delivered on a tray to your bedside. Because you need radical surgery. Once in this glorious seclusion, get out what you have already written, and read it. Love it. It’s great. Once you’ve read everything, or everything that’s current if there’s a lot, make some notes. Think about the writer that is you and ask yourself if trying something new would help rejuvenate you as a writer.
- Change the sex of a major character. Or, if you’ve only written as your own gender, try writing in the voice of the opposite sex. Use free-writing to get this going, so you can’t stop to think about it too much.
- Change the POV. Do you always write in the 1st person? Or never write it in? Try swapping round. If you fancy the challenge, try writing in the 2nd person singular, or even 2nd person plural. Have a stab at the omniscient. Always start with free-writing, bearing in mind no one need ever read it, and you can throw it away if you wish.
- Change the genre or form. If you never write poems, try one now. If you always write romance, move your love into a sci fi setting. To aid this free-writing, compile a list of genres and forms that you would like to try – include some you are fearful of trying. Move through them using free-writing.
- Change the style. Having read through your work, have you noticed your style? Would you like to attempt a rejuvenation? Have a go with your free-writing technique. Did you notice that it’s lacking dialogue, or full of long descriptions? Try the exact opposite and see how it goes. Did the writing lack emotion, or lack imagery? Again, have a go at the alternatives. Do you always write by hand? Start with a Word Doc instead. Always write by keyboard? Your next free-writer should be by hand.
Remember, you’re not alone. Other authors have been sick at heart, too.
Stephen King threw his first published novel in the rubbish bin (luckily his wife fished it out). John Braine wrote his first novel, Room at the Top while in hospital. When J K Rowling wrote the first Harry Potter, she was depressed, penniless and divorced with a small child. Louise May Alcott wrote letters home when she was a nurse in WW1, which led to Little Women.
But that’s a lot to live up to, so start with step one and two and don’t think ahead too much. Read loads, and only use the free-writing technique until you’re up and running. Free-writing in this way will leave you with a portfolio of small pieces that you can go back to time and again.
Okay, the Kitchen Table Writers Doctor is discharging you as fit to write. Now it’s up to you!
Monday, 10 August 2015
THE KITCHEN TABLE WRITERS with Nina Milton: Get All Moody with your Writing: This week, I'm talking about how to get mood, atmosphere and pace into your writing
Read the blogpost here;
A student has just written to me about the reading she’s engaged in; Trying to portray character h...
Read the blogpost here;
A student has just written to me about the reading she’s engaged in; Trying to portray character h...
Monday, 3 August 2015
I'm featured on my publisher's Blogsite this week with my post about crime fiction; those who love it, and those who might sneer!
FOR THE LOVE OF CRIME
When I tell people I write crime fiction, the one thing I’m not hoping to hear is, “Oh, I neverread crime fiction.”
Not because I want them to buy my books, but because I simply don’t believe them. Of course they read crime fiction. They just don’t know it. No way would I admit what I’m actually thinking, which is, “that’s a whole heap of baloney, pal – the literary equivalent of the excrement of the male cow.”…Read my complete blogpost