Saturday, 24 January 2015

Open College of the Arts Creative Writing; The Hollow Places by Nina Milton

A new blogpost about learning to write from me on the Open College of the Arts blogsite;

Hollow Places

I’m a King of Hearts kind of writer. That is, when I begin to write something, long or short, I have to start at the beginning and I only stop when I get to the end. (Even more Wonderland-like, I usually go back to the beginning at that point.)
Although I often think up stories in a non-sequential order, and my notebooks are crammed with jumbled chronologies and leap-frogged jottings about character, setting and plot, once I rest my hands on the keyboard I have to write the opening scene before I can move on, and chapter one has to be followed by chapter two.
Many writers, established and successful, do not follow this pattern. They’ll perhaps write the climaxes and tension-points before joining these parts and filling out the story. Or they’ll follow the adventures of a single protagonist for a while before working on further characters. Some canny writers start with the end and work backwards.
For creative writing students on the level three course ‘Independent Project’, the choices they make have far more to do with the goals they’re primarily pursuing; that is, to submit assignments to their tutor and make a final selection of work for assessment. The Independent Project course may be their last with the OCA; it’s often the assessment that gives them the final mark for their degree. At the same time, now they feel comfortable as writers, they’ll also wish to complete this longer piece of work for their own satisfaction, and for their own growth as a writer.
Students are allowed to dream about finishing that first novel! But with so many conflicting objectives in mind, achieving all this is not straightforward. Level three students can only submit a certain number of words to their tutor – considerably less than a completed full-length work. So how should they go about structuring their writing so that they accomplish the project they’re longing to complete, and gain the best results?
One of my students, Sophie Cartwright, now nearing the end of a creative writing degree, is keen to write a young adult novel. This is a positive step for her as a writer, and an excellent project to work with for an Independent Project.
But doing so presented enormous challenges, especially the conflicts between writing good assignments and constructing a good draft of a novel. For her second and third assignments she sent me two separate extracts from her continuing novel. She’d chosen two moments of tension within the story, but she was encountering problems; she had leapt ahead to write these sections without filling in the gaps between, and both of us noticed that this led to a somewhat lackluster narrative. The characters were thin on the page, as if they were slipping between the words, and because we didn’t quite care about them, the content wasn’t as tense or absorbing as it might have been. The writing also included things the writer needs to know about, but the reader does not. Because Sophie had only written what was needed for each assignment, she hadn’t been able to overcome these difficulties.
Sophie isn’t the first student – or the first hopeful novelist – to hit such an obstacle. It often happens if you disregard the King of Hearts’ advice. We examined her options. She wants her young adult novel to develop successfully, but she also needs to submit good assignments. We decided that she should try to write the story as she’d envisioned it, and how it is encountered by the characters, even though some of this would not be in a final draft and most of it would not be in the assignment work. It was my belief that she could achieve her academic goals and her writing dreams by doing this. Of course, it did mean an awful lot more work, but in my experience it’s the writing that teaches you your craft.
In her reflective commentary for assignment four, Sophie was able to be far more positive. She wrote…”I’ve been working hard to develop Underground since my last assignment. As suggested, I spent time going back to the very start and have written the scenes that I will not submit for assignment. This was extremely helpful, as it helped me to consolidate the characters and iron out plot inconsistencies. I originally used free writing to build the unwritten scenes, before going back and working through parts of the story that didn’t work. This added a deeper layer to the plotline and I felt that this worked well when it came to developing the characters for this assignment. Ernest Hemingway is quoted in the Short Fiction course: ‘A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing’. This has been absolutely true so far, and I hope that, by taking the time to ensure I know the characters and plot development, I have been able to write a richer and more engaging chapter of the story.”
As Sophie discovered, it’s all to easy to think that the scene in your head is ‘good to go’. But it is so much candy-floss until it’s written down. To write first and discard later in this way is crucial in getting to know your characters, their lives, and their relationships with other characters. New ideas are sparked and the structure of the story will develop as you watch them go about their business. None of this can happen if you leave the story jostling around in your head. You may discover that the moments of tension you planned to concentrate on are not actually the parts you want to send as assignments. There may be new, equally absorbing and driven sections you’ve now discovered as you wrote into the ‘hollow places’.
Since Sophie altered her approach to writing the Independent Project, her work has flourished, because she’s beginning to write like a professional. This is what the college expects their level three writers to aim for. At this level (HE level Six), a student is expected to demonstrate that they have developed their understanding of the concepts underlying their discipline. They need to show evidence of good judgement, especially in how they handle the Craft of Writing, and how they’ve developed their use of Language; their writing voice.
By the time they’ve finished the final course, they should be ready to springboard away from tutors and assessments and feel confident in their writing. Writing into the hollow places, being prepared to complete a lot of extra work and understanding what to discard from those first writing drafts are all essential aspects of taking that leap.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Zoned-in Description - using detail in your writing

 I think it was John Gardiner who said…DETAIL IS THE LIFE-BLOOD OF CREATIVE WRITING. If he did, he was right. the strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Moving into close-up is absorbing.

You don’t have to describe everything around the location and setting of your work (often refered to in writerly terms as the milieu), for the reader to 'see' it. Imagery works far better when the writer ‘zones in’ on specific things, rather than trying to described everything. This is the ‘nuggets of gold’ method…finding the perfect item that will tell the reader as much as all the rest put together. 

What readers love the most, are the details of life as they know it and can recognise it, yet described with fresh, inventive eyes. A writer who can make such ‘commonalities’ appear new on the page will engage and entrance. I call this ability  zoning in. The strange truth is, the more detail you chose to include, the less boring the writing becomes. Skimming over a description loses the reader, zoning in absorbs him. By looking closely at the most interesting parts of the whole, the description is enhanced.Seeing it all is like being close to the screen in the cinema – too much information.
Samuel Johnson said, “The two most engaging powers of an author are to make new things familiar and familiar things new.”  Don’t be afraid of detail – it makes all the difference – it is the complete opposite of writing huge swathes of description that skim over detail and bore the reader to sleep. 
So when you describe, rather than paint an overall picture, zone in to look at small details using symbolism wherever you can. Think about what the ‘core’ of the thing you’re describing might be. Naturally, this will depend on whether you’re looking at landscape, background settings, external or interior locations, objects or people. Here are some examples of what I mean:

Below, Charlotte Bronte uses description of landscape to draw us slowly towards the house she will later use almost as a character in the story. The delightful words…low, broad tower…galaxy…clashed…candle-light…the rest were dark…are designed to set up small mysteries in our mind. The punctuation might be a little out of date, but there is no doubt that this landscape sets up the reader for new experiences.
Again I looked out; we were passing a church: I saw its low broad tower against the sky, and its bell was tolling a quarter; I saw a narrow galaxy of lights, too, on a hill-side, marking a village or hamlet. About ten minutes after, the driver got down and opened a pair of gates; we passed through, and they clashed to behind us. We now slowly ascended a drive, and came upon the long front of a house: candle-light gleamed from one curtained bow-window; all the rest were dark…
Charlotte Bronte, Jane Eyre 
Background Setting;
 In my children’s novel Sweet’n’Sour, I needed to describe the backdrop to my character’s life – Low Hee is eleven years old and from Malaysia – but the reader would want to get back to the story, so I chose to focus on his grandmother’s pig. 
Each morning, he boiled up the scraps for her feed and cleaned her sty. He loved grooming her with a stiff brush; she’d lie perfectly still for him while he scraped mud from her pink back. When he’d finished, he’d set out along the dusty road to school…
Sweet'nSour, Nina Milton

External Location
Note particularly, the ease in which this author uses the five senses…
He was standing on the wharf, peering down at the Delaware River while the sun beat on his shoulders. A mild breeze, the smells of tar and copper. A few yards away the Narwhal loomed, but he was looking instead at the partial reflection trapped between hull and pilings. The way the planks wavered, the railing bent, the boom appeared then disappeared; the way the image filled the surface without concealing the complicated life below. He saw, beneath the transparent shadow, what his father had taught him to see: the schools of minnows, the eels and algae, the mussels burrowing into the silt; the diatoms and desmids and insect larvae sweeping past hydrazoans and infant snails....
The Voyage of the Narwhal Andrea Barrett
Poet Carol Ann Duffy zones in deliciously when remember her bedroom as a child;
The single bed
was first a wooden boat;
stars translated for me
as I drifted away –
our cargoed winter house
dark and at anchor –

and then a Russian Doll
where I stilled in my selves;
six secrets or presents
under a thrilled tree...
Decembers from Bees, Carol Ann Duffy
Sarah Waters is a marvellous close-up describer. In this scene, the character, Viv, observes a room  she’s never entered. Waters then takes us as close to the stockings, towel and soap as is possible. This suggests that in describing, we are doing more than simply setting a scene or telling the reader what might be seen, we are entering the world of the character. The closer the author goes, the closer the reader gets.
There was a single bed, an ancient-looking wardrobe, a chair with cigarette burns and a little wash-basin in the corner that was coming away from the wall. A radiator, painted over and over with different kinds of paint, gave off a tepid heat. On the bedside table was an alarm clock fastened down with a length of wire. The clock said ten past six. She had thirty or forty minutes.
...She had been worrying about the dress all day, because it was crepe and easily creased: she took it carefully from the envelope and let it fall from her hands, then spend a few minutes tugging at it, trying to flatten out the folds. The stockings she had worn and washed many times; there were patches of darning, the stitches tiny and neat, like fairy-work. She ran them over her fingers, liking the feel of them, looking for faults.
The towel was yellowy-white and thick, like a baby’s napkin. The soap had fine grey seams in it. But she’d brought talcum powder and she dabbed scent, from a little bottle, on her wrists and throat and collarbones, and between her breasts. When she put on the flimsy crepe dress, and replaced her lisle-winter stockings with flesh-coloured silk ones, she felt as though she was in her nightie, light and exposed.
Sarah Waters Night Watch 
Here's the beginning of a story where the character is introduced mainly through a physical context in a specific locations – an allotment. We learn about the man through his activities and the way his allotment is kept. We’re never told that he is a little obsessive with a strong work ethic, or that he’s a painter, but we can more or less guess these things through the physicality of his world as we’re show through detail... yellow bone-handled knife for instance, which helps the reader make a picture in his mind and became very aware of the sort of man Robin is. 
Robin hoed between geometric rows of crops. His sweat dripped into the soil. The hoe travelled swift and firm along its weedless way, as if he’d been given a penitential exercise for an unknown sin.
He had come to the allotment to harvest the produce they would use during the week; the end product of previous sweat-dripped work. Lettuce, carrots, potatoes, beans and sweet round beets had been sliced through with the yellow bone-handled knife and placed in the boot of the old Vauxhall, placed to lie in careful compliment of shape texture and colour.
The spare tyre made good staging. He’d taken a thoughtful step back to survey his still life. It was more than just food; it looked spiritually appetizing. 
Girl in a Lilac Dress Nina Milton (Tees Valley Writer) 
Combining descriptions
You might want to describe more than one aspect of your milieu. Remember that zoned-in description, when done well, almost always describes more than that one isolated item. I call this multitasking.

  • To reveal character
  • To heighten identification with character
  • To add clues to the outcome
  • To deepen symbolism
  • To add jokes or moments of depth
  • To just add that extra zing – atmosphere that makes the reader feel they are ‘there’.

To finish here is the thriller writer, Frances Fyfield,  describing a new character in a new situation and place; that’s a lot all at once. To enable this, she makes the vista move and change – she starts by directing the reader’s attention on the most obvious item – the gates. She zones-in on detail, before taking our eye soaring upwards. She also uses sounds to great effect. Above all, you’re already concerned for this vulnerable character. Words like...pissed, strange, repel, sharp, plaintiv...suggest the start of danger, and the phrases...hum of noise and glow of a haunting mood.
She was drunk, inebriated, intoxicated, pissed, something like that, no doubt about it. Plus a little something else which made these bright lights extra bright, and the colours of the vast wrought-iron gates very strange. Such great big gates, made to repel and attract multitudes, each thirty feet high and standing open, decorated with huge motifs of Tudor rose and curlicues painted turquoise, pink and purple without a single sharp angle. These gates rose to a point half the height of the domed glass ceiling inside. She noticed a single seagull wheeling above the building, its plaintive mewling audible above the hum of the noise and the profile of its wings caught in the glow of light which came through the roof...
Cold to the Touch  Frances Fyfield

Monday, 12 January 2015

January's Guest Blogger; Open College of the Arts Student Jerry Allen

I’ve recently been having an email conversation with Jerry Allen, who has just signed up to do the Open College of the Arts ‘Life Writing’ course. He describes himself as  a ”nervous OCA novice”, but when I asked him to guest-blog for me, I loved what he had to say about his writing. I think he speaks for new writers everywhere…

Jerry says; This was taken in the Chittagong Hills.
The pipes were handed to me in a Mro village.
The Mro and the most remote Indigenous nation.
It has been a very long time since I studied.  I felt it would be helpful for me to formulate and express my reasons for taking this step. So here goes: 

My writing so far could be called “travel writing”.  Paul Theroux’s described travel books as boring, “self-indulgent, unfunny and rather selective” in ‘The Great Railway Bazaar’, where he broke the mould.  I want to write about people not sightseeing.  For example, the families that adopted me while travelling through India, the nuclear scientist on a bus in Iran, the people I’ve been squeezed against in Sri Lanka, the people escaping oppression, etc.  A good example of travel writing is the start of Ian Fleming’s “Thrilling Cities”, though it is a rich colonial’s view of the developing world.  He describes a journey by air to Hong Kong, the stopovers that were inevitable then and the often-annoying fellow passengers. 

I am a proud to be a member of a small, endangered tribe, or more correctly, an “Indigenous Nation”.  There are less than 2,500 Khyang people left in those beautiful jungle hills, we have lost land and will lose our language in another generation.  As I am from New Addington, where the Khyang “Nation” could fit in one block of flats, this may sound like a strange fantasy, but it is true.  I am desperate to write about the culture, language and plight before it is too late.  There is an urgency to describe their situation in an engaging way.  The most respected book on the tribes of the Chittagong Hills was written in 1869 by a young officer from a far posher part of Croydon. As a result of my experiences in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, I‘ve writen blogs for Amnesty International I feel I could contribute more if I could communicate and engage better.

So what do I want to do with the writing course I’ve signed up to? I want to write a love story.  My wife and I have gone through extraordinary struggles, battling with 2 governments.  We are an unusual couple, as people frequently note, and our love is very strong. 

But, it seems difficult for a man to write romance. A writer friend who has had romances published, suggested they should have a certain narrative structure. Finding a way to tell our love story and express my feelings avoiding triteness will be a challenge. 

‘Railway Man’ by Eric Lomax describes the horrors of being tortured in a Japanese prisoner of war camp. The book approaches his life chronologically, while the film starts with a love story.  A troubled man in his 60s falls in love with a woman he meets on a train and she helps him come to terms with the horrors of his past.  

My writing ambition began when I unexpectedly arrived back in England with my leg in a cast after years in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Tajikistan and Bangladesh.  I found myself in a culture that I could not understand, in an unfamiliar small town.  For once in my life I was forced to sit still.  It was winter and, as I got more mobile, the snow kept falling.  This gloomy point was when the urge to look at my life and to write started.  Still in plaster, I limped into a writing group meeting.  They found my writing “quirky”.  But their writing and the exercises evoked an unfamiliar, comfortable world and I felt increasing intimidated.  

Even so, I’ve kept going and now I’m ready to study LIfe Writing. From that low point, the happiest time in my life developed. 

You can comment on this post, or ask Jerry questions in the comment box below.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Fifty Shades of Nighttime Grey; Walking the Somerset Levels



The Somerset Moors

A new blog post from Nina is featured on the Crime Readers  Association website, posted
7th January 2015 by  in Crime Readers' Updates | 0 comments
Have you ever walked the Somerset Levels at night? I have, purely for research purposes, and it was a scary experience. On the night I took my walk, charcoal clouds were scuttling across the sky. The quarter moon and the thick, milky covering of stars played hide and seek. Everything was grey…prickly hedges…reed beds…looming trunks of ancient willows…all shades of grey. As I walked the farmland paths, it was hard to spot the channels of water bordering each field. Several times I came up sharp to find myself staring down into reeking, stagnant ditches or canals brim full and squelchy at the edge. I battled on, my torch spotlighting my map, taking the wooden bridges in a zigzag route towards my destination.
I was heading for the peatbogs…

read the full post at

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Books of the Year; an interactive post.

MWho really knows which were the best books of the year? I know the ones I loved. But when I looked around the various media, opinions differed hugely. So I thought it would be far more interesting to hear about your favourite book –  books published in  2014 that you couldn't put down, or that left you thinking deeply. 

The Sameer Rahim, critic for the Telegraph, chose
The Narrow Road to the Deep North by Richard Flanagan as his top book. I might have read this by now, if I hadn't ordered online, making the error of chosing right title, wrong author! I'm now in possession of some lovely haikiu, entitled The Narrow Road to the Deep North by a Japanese poet called Matsuo Basho Noboyuki Yuasa. (It's very good, by the way)

The Guardian,
thought this was a year for books that comfortably bridged the literary-commercial divide. Which is exactly where Sarah Waters’s hugely enjoyable suffragette-eraThe Paying Guests (Virago £20) fits in alongside Kate Mosse’s excellent page-turner The Taxidermist’s Daughter (Orion £16.99). Both are tightly-woven psychological thrillers, with Mosse offering a characteristic hint of the gothic and Waters painting a jaw-droppingly detailed historical portrait of a doomed love affair.

At Best Books, the 'staff pick' was Bone Clocks by David Mitchell. Ari Shapiro, bought it in hardback. The novel, which blends realism and fantasy, traces the life of a woman who gets caught up in a war between two groups of ancient, near-immortals. I read it flying from D.C. to London, and it carried me much further than that — across centuries, continents and genres. I'm not enough of a Mitchell fan to attend his conferences or read critical essays about him; I am enough of a fan to read nearly everything he's written. And The Bone Clocks ranks among his best.Having loved his other novels, this one is on my list for 2015.  
 On the Goodreads, the social site for book lovers, the overal fiction choice was  Landline by Rainbow Rowell. It got over 46,000 votes from readers. In Thrillar of 2014, Stephen King returned with Mr Mercedes. 

In the social network site for book lovers, Goodreads, Robert Galbraith (aka J K Rowling) was pipped to the thriller of the year post with the return of Stephen King. His new book, Mr Mercedes, got almost 41 and a half thousand votes from mystery and thriller readers. Yet again using a Midwestern city, he opened the story in the pre-dawn hours, where a line of the unemployed waiting at a job fair. A lone driver ploughs through the crowd killing the innocent.

Viv Grosop, writing for the New Republic, chose All My Puny Sorrows by Miriam Toews; I found myself wondering, on nearly every page, how I could have remained ignorant of this brilliant writer for so many years. (Somewhere, my Canadian literary friends are shaking their heads in disdain.) I want to call her a Canadian Lorrie Moore, but the truth is that Toews is truly distinct, hilarious even when she’s dealing with the most heartbreaking and bleak of subjectsas she is here: The plot of this novel circles around one woman’s multiple attempts to kill herself, and her sister’s internal debate as to whether she should help her. Maybe bleak plot summaries like this one are what inadvertently kept me away from Toews in the pastwhy would anyone want to read that depressing story? But trust me, you must.

Ben LernerIn Flavour Wire, a very cool cultural magazine,   says he's bored by the 2014 year-end lists in literature. "There is a measure of comfort in books coverage that breaks faith with the lively, exploratory spirit of contemporary literature. And 2014 has been an exemplary year in this regard, especially for poetry and the novel."
He chose 10:04, by Ben Lerner  as his pick of 2014, describing 10:04, as a clarion call for a new fiction built on the premise that real life is composed of fictions. "It shreds the notion, inherent to the postmodern novel, that the self must be lost in systems of entropy or disinformation."

Buzz Feed went for a book I've never heard of; LIndsay Hunter'sdebut novel  Ugly Girls, tells the heartbreaking story of an unraveling friendship between two young women, Baby Girl and Perry, as they careen through a world troubled by suburban poverty, alcoholic parents, and the attentions of a sinister internet stalker. 

And my choice? 

Close-up of Donna Tartt, with her dark bobbed hair
 Donna Tartt reads from The Goldfinch at its launch in September 2013. Photograph: Bas Czerwinski/AFP/Getty
The Goldfinch, by Donna Tartt deserved every bit of praise. It's a long book, and when I reached pg 100 I can remember thinking, "thank heavens, I've still got 600 pages to enjoy..." it's that sort of read. Characters - so colourful and real and unforgettable Theme - clever and deep. Setting -  contemporary and brilliantly coloured. And the plot has oozes of my favourite thing; causality. In other words all the twists at the end are deeply set into the beginning. 
SIt's the sort of book you want to start again as soon as you've finished. 

So now it's over to you. What was your utter favourite book of 2014? Let me know in the comment box - let's see what your choices are.

And a happy, peaceful and prosperous 2015 to all my readers and followers.

Landline by 

Georgie McCool knows her marriage is in trouble;it has been in trouble for a long time. She still loves her husband, Neal, and Neal still loves her, deeply — but that almost seems beside the point now.

Maybe that was always beside the point.