Tagged: creative writing

Notes on creative writing: How long should a chapter be?

The second in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

How long should a chapter be?

This is a question I’ve been asked in class by novel-writing students, and it’s not a stupid question. Chapters are odd things, that we tend to take for granted, and that most of us won’t have thought properly about until we try to write one. Or, once we’ve started writing one, when we ask ourselves when we are supposed to stop.

The best way of thinking about chapters (like so much else in writing) will be to think of it from the reader’s point of view. A reader sees chapters first of all as way of measuring a book. A book is divided into chapters like a Terry’s Chocolate Orange is divided into segments. Eat one segment, and you might get an immediate sense of whether you will want to eat the whole thing in one go, or spread the pieces out. Chapters give a sense of scale, then, and also a sense of rhythm. Even though chapters aren’t necessarily all the same size, like Chocolate Orange segments, they will tend to be more or less the same.

Once upon a time, that decision – of how many chapters to ‘eat’ in one go – wasn’t left to the reader. In the Nineteenth Century, novels were usually serialised, published one chapter at a time in weekly or monthly periodicals, and only collected as a book once they were finished. (It wasn’t just commercial novels that were serialised. Henry James’s Portrait of a Lady and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary were originally published this way.)

This led to two results for novels: they tended to get longer, as writers padded out and extended storylines that were proving popular with readers; and novelists learned to end chapters on a cliff-hanger, an unresolved plot element that would not just make readers want to know what happened next, but would stick in their heads for the week or month until the next instalment.

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Notes on creative writing: using cinema as a model for writing prose fiction even though I’m not that big a fan of cinema

The first in an occasional series of posts reflecting on bits and pieces I’ve learned teaching Creative Writing both previously at UEA and St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and now, at City, University of London, where I run the MA/MFA Creative Writing, which is now recruiting for September 2021 entry.

I teach how to write of prose fiction, as that’s what I write. I’ve never written for the screen, and don’t watch that much film or television. All the same, there are some instances in my teaching where I lean on cinema, rather than novels or stories, for examples and instruction. 

One of these is to do with plotting and plot arcs. I’ll write about that another time. The other is to do with writing scenes between characters, and specifically to do with handling dialogue. 

The fact I’ve already used the word scenes suggests that I’m thinking in visual terms. After all, in our ordinary life we don’t consider the stuff we do, and our interactions with other people, as scenes all. We’re too much in them to think of them like that. But, even with a first person narrator, it’s useful to think of interactions between characters in a written narrative as scenes – discrete elements, with a start and a finish, and a reason for being. 

The two ways that I think of film as a useful guide to writing prose scenes is firstly in terms of dialogue, and then in terms of pacing. Some creative writing students dislike dialogue, and can write whole scenes with none of it at all. For others it’s the best way into drafting. You imagine your characters talking to each other, and that helps you drive towards your planned plot development. It’s easier, in a way, to make a character say something than do something. There’s less at stake. 

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December reading: Murdoch, Sage, Kinch

img_1955I read three great books in December: The Sandcastle by Iris Murdoch, Bad Blood by Lorna Sage and Two Sketches of Disjointed Happiness by Simon Kinch. All three were picked up in charity shops, and although the Lorna Sage had probably been sitting on my shelves for a year or so, I’ve just spotted that I had another copy that had been there for far longer, equally unread. The other two sped quickly shop-to-read. This question of what gets read when, and why, is one that continues to preoccupy me.

I have little to say about the Sage. It is a great memoir, a great piece of writing that takes the form of a memoir. It is lucid in its evocation of an upbringing that seems to have been usefully awful, and surprisingly placid in its telling, all things considered. The monster at the centre is Sage’s grandfather, a philandering vicar, who, nevertheless, had a deep connection with his granddaughter. Perhaps it’s that recognition that leads to the placidity.

Nevertheless, like all memoirs this is at base an act of revenge, but like all great memoirs the past (and the narrator’s own person) is held at enough of a distance that we can read ourselves into it. And certainly the description of Sage’s teenage pregnancy made me think of someone I knew in our street who went through the same thing, and was ostracised in a similar fashion­.

Sage fashions a moving end to the story, though (memoirs, unlike novels and, obviously, biographies, can’t risk unhappy endings) in which she her young shotgun husband both make it to university with their daughter. On the way, the unmarried female teachers at Sage’s school (the Misses Macdonald, Heslop and Roberts) support her through her A Levels and university applications in the face of official disapproval, and her fellow pupils, who never much liked her when she was there, give her a huge round of applause as she goes up on stage to collect her leaver’s book token.

It does make me think, as a critic and teacher, about the tricksiness of memoir. It is the only literary form that comes with any kind of barrier to entry. Anyone can write a novel, a sonnet sequence, an essay… even a biography, if they do their homework. In order to write a memoir, on the other hand, you are generally expected to have experienced something extraordinary in your life. But how extraordinary? How much is enough? Equally clearly, the presence of extraordinary events alone is not sufficient. You also need to be able to write.

The greater the writer, you might think, the slimmer and sparser the incidents treated might be, but that still does leave us, as with Sage, trying and failing to unpick the two aspects (bluntly: form and content). It is harder to tell, when reading a good memoir, if it is the events that are affecting you, or the treatment of them, or both. When something doesn’t work, it’s usually easier to make the call. I was astonished how uncompelling I found Adam Mars-Jones’s memoir of his father, Kid Gloves. The prose was as good as ever (I’m a big fan of his slow-flowing, practically viscous roman fleuve), but I found the story he was telling entirely uninteresting.

Also: is Sage’s book better as a memoir than it would have been as a novel, with all the variance that may imply? If so, why? Because we ascribe more affect to it because it is ‘true’? (And, after all, we don’t know how much variance there is in the memoir itself; we take it on trust.) None of this is new. But certainly I enjoyed Bad Bloodvery much.

(Interestingly, Marina Warner’s introduction to Sage’s posthumous essay collection, Moments of Truth, mentions that she intended to write a book about the friction between life and art, based on the idea that “you can’t have the work without the life or, more pointedly, the life without the work, nor the work or the life without the art”, and to show that “the ‘heroism’ and representativeness of writers’ life-stories [are] aspects of the decay of classic literary realism”. Which, when you think about it, is precisely the work we need to read today, that would throw into relief the whole question of autofiction, not along moral lines, but practical, aesthetic ones. Sage died in 2001.)

The Sandcastle is the second thoroughly enjoyable Iris Murdoch I’ve read on the trot, following the superb and wonderful The Black Prince, discussed here. This was a relief, for in fact I have had problems with some of her novels: A Fairly Honourable Defeat, The Flight From the Enchanter and The Philosopher’s Pupil are all ones I’ve started and not finished at various times over the past few years. An Unofficial Rose I finished, but grudgingly, with dwindling pleasure; ditto Under the Net. (On the other hand, The Sea, The Sea, The Italian Girl, A Severed Head and Nuns and Soldiers were all read and enjoyed.) Continue reading

A short screed: Anita Brookner and the writing ‘House Rules’

Something I often say in Creative Writing classes is this: a story (or poem, or novel, or essay) should contain the rules for its own reading. If you have intentions for a piece of writing, then those intentions should be embedded, or encoded in the piece. You should establish your own house rules, give clues as to what you’re trying to do. A dead body and a detective will tend to suggest the likelihood of a crime novel. But it goes beyond this. Take irony. You can’t be ironical without establishing that you’re being ironical. The regular use of the comma splice could be a stylistic choice, or it could be editorial sloppiness or grammatical ineptitude. If it is a choice, I want some implicit indication of this, perhaps in the relationship between content and form, or between narrative voice and character. I want to know you know what you’re doing.

This works well enough inside the Creative Writing course, where the idea of authorial intention is not only viable, but necessary. You can’t mark anything without objective criteria. In Creative Writing courses the universities set out the (quite broad) definitions of what ‘good writing’ is, and students are encouraged to present work that makes sense within that rubric. Make sure I know what it is you’re trying to do, and I’ll mark you accordingly. Embed your own house rules in your writing. Goethe’s three questions of constructive criticism very much apply:

What was the author trying to do?

Did they succeed?

Was it worth doing?

(There is a further complication produced by the current system of teaching, which is that often you already have an idea of what a particular student is trying to do, from discussions in the seminar, and so the encoded intentions, the house rules, go by the bye. This can cloud the marking – and shows the need for second marking, and moderation. Rewarding a piece of work primarily for its intention is clearly academically unsound, no matter that it is, critically speaking, unsounder still.)

Things get more tricky outside of academia, where the critical paradigms are more varied and confused. Two months ago I read my first novel by Anita Brookner, and yesterday I finished my second. The first was her debut, A Start in Life (1981), the second her eleventh, A Closed Eye (1991). I was struck by both books having the same narrative construction, one that I found frustrating, and I found myself asking myself: is this what she intended? It must be, if she did it twice. (I’ll explain what it is in a moment.) But why?

I’m afraid that, if I’d been ‘marking’ it, I’d have marked her down.

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Why do you write? The impulse inwards and the impulse outwards

why do you write

Today I took a Creative Writing workshop at the LSE Space For Thought Literary Festival, which I’d titled Why Do You Write? And Can Knowing That Even Help? It will soon be available as a podcast. It was good fun to run – and I tried out a couple of new writing exercises, but one thing I did that is quite standard fare is I asked the students to jot down, for themselves, their personal reasons for writing.

Now, if you’re a writer, and you feel like exploring this question, perhaps you’d take two minutes to jot down a few possible answers before reading on. That’s what I asked students to do in the workshop, and I think it’s worth doing blind, as it were, for reasons that will become clear.

So, before reading on, grab a pen and jot down six reasons why you write.

Or, you know, ignore that, roll your eyes, and read on.

One thing I’d noticed, in making my own personal list in preparation for the session, was the reasons divided reasonably easily into two categories: inward-oriented impulses, and those that turned outwards.

So, when I asked students to share their reasons with the room at large, and I wrote them up on the whiteboard, I divided them into two columns as I went. Here’s what they came up with – some of it compressed and paraphrased by me, for which I apologise.

  • Because I can
  • Communicate
  • Create
  • Entertain
  • Reciprocate  – give back something for all the reading pleasure I’ve had
  • To make sense of things
  • Share
  • To keep my head from exploding
  • Protest
  • Compulsion
  • Reach an audience
  • Reflect on things
  • Money!
  • Explore myself and my self-identity
  • Make people laugh and cry
  • Explore my imagination
  • Capture moments
  • Overcome the fear of writing
  • Therapeutic reasons


And this was the list I then showed, that I’d come up with. (Some of it tongue-in-cheek)

  • Replicate the joy and intensity of reading
  • Get rich and famous
  • Understand something about yourself
  • Express or share something about yourself
  • Understand something about the world
  • Express or share something about the world
  • Emulate your favourite writer
  • Impose your ideas on others
  • The sheer thrill of creation
  • Contribute to the culture, or the conversation, as you see it
  • Entertain yourself
  • Impress others / make yourself seem more interesting / get laid

As you can see, many of the terms and reasons pop up in both lists, in some form or other. I’d pretty much decided on giving an equal balance between the two impulses, once I’d decided on that perhaps overly simplistic division, but I was interested to see that the students’ list was significantly longer than the outward one, while mine, if anything, erred towards the outward or external.

I say ‘simplistic’, but I do think there is a fundamental split here. We all of us write both for ourselves and for others, to some extent, but if you made a personal list perhaps you’d look at it now and ask yourself: which column do most of your reasons sit in? Are you a ‘for yourself’ writer, or a ‘for others’?

Someone whose answers sat squarely in the right hand column might be at risk of producing meretricious, programmatic, target-oriented, basically uninteresting writing, because they’re so fixated on the effect of their writing that they are blind to the workings of their own writing personality. But someone whose answers stick to the left-hand column might be producing work which doesn’t take that crucial step of reaching out and engaging with the world, which lacks the ambition and ego needed to make writing truly crucial to the reader.

“Don’t use ‘said’,” he bellowed: creative writing lessons from the primary school classroom

I attended a couple of  ‘Impact’ literary workshops at my sons’ primary school this week, in which their teachers laid out the strategies they would be using to help improve the pupils’ literacy – in this case, their writing, rather than their reading. The aim was to encourage them to be more adventurous in their Vocabulary, their use of Connectives, and their sentence/paragraph/story Openers, and to consolidate their Punctuation usage – all of which goes together to give us the unlovely acronym VCOP.

Stickers of the door of my boys' Year 4 classroom

Quite apart from the  experience of sitting on a tiny chair, clutching an A4 white board and a marker pen, and listening – rather than doing what I’d usually be doing at 9am on a Wednesday, which is being the one standing at the front, trying to keep everyone’s attention focused – I was struck by just how radically different the core lessons were to those that I’ve been teaching in undergraduate Creative Writing seminars. When I say radically different, I mean diametrically opposed.

Let’s take, as emblematic, a ‘rule’ and an exercise from the workshop:

  • The rule is that children should avoid using ‘said’ when tagging speech, and instead choose a more descriptive verb.
  • The exercise, which the class teacher got the parents to do, was to take a simple sentence (“The old man walked through the forest”) and make it more ‘interesting’ by changing and adding words.

You don’t have to be Hemingway to guess that, when it comes to undergraduate creative writing, these are pretty much the opposite of what we preach – where we = the great academic-literary consensus/conspiracy. Take out those annoying speech-act verbs, we say: use good old ‘said’ instead. And remove all extraneous, flowery vocabulary. Keep it simple.

Obviously, these lessons come at very different stages in the life-long journey of becoming a great writer/a normal adult. It’s not like discouraging kids from expanding their vocabulary, and whacking them with a ruler every time they used ‘mumbled’ instead of ‘said,’ would automatically turn them into natural writers of spare, cut-to-the-bone prose. The opposite is probably true. So something more complex is in play.

It’s this: that there is a time in a writer’s early development when they have to stop showing how good they are by virtue of demonstrating the breadth of their vocabulary, and instead show it through something like discretion. The right word at the right – occasional – moment will make all the difference. A paragraph stuffed full of mots justes will read like a dense tangle of conflicting, self-regarding brilliances.

Or take the speech tag paradox. It’s one of the most common ‘rules’ of creative writing that you should to stick to ‘said’ most if not all of the time. This isn’t because we don’t want readers to know that the characters are angry/drunk/scared/whatever the more specific verb would imply, but because it’s ‘better’ (the literary consensus has it) that we get that information either through the dialogue itself, or through an accompanying piece of description.

In structuralist parlance, the signified of this absent, accursèd word must be alluded to, without the signifier itself being present. The writer must prove s/he has a vast vocabulary, not be using it, but by not hiding it… but in such a way to demonstrate that s/he – and the reader – both know it’s there.

I was beginning to think these thoughts as I set about my task of ‘improving’ that exemplary sentence – for which we parents were given just 60 seconds. My first thought was that, as sentences go, “The old man walked through the forest” was pretty good, and possibly unimprovable. Although I suspected that what was wanted was something along the lines of “The wizened old man tripped and tottered through the dark and foreboding forest” I tried to see if I could improve the sentence in a way more in keeping with the way I’d try to get my Creative Writing students to do it – to give the sense of his oldness, and of the setting, and perhaps of something more – that would hint at ways his story might unfold – without resorting to the most obvious means.

What I wrote was: “The man walked along the path, stopping and starting, eyes on the tops of the trees, his hand on his stick.”

Obviously, it’s pretty bog-standard, as sentences go, but I do think it hints at the way our assumptions about ‘elegant’ ‘literary’ prose function. The words ‘man’ and ‘walked’ stay (they are eminently ‘degree-zero’ forms of writing, very much on a par with ‘said’), while the parts that can be alluded to, rather than explicitly stated, are cut out – ‘old’ and ‘forest’.  What is aimed for is not density of specification, but deftness of allusion. You get the reader to collaborate in the production of meaning.

This allusiveness carries risks: in this case, that reader will misread the ‘stick’ as a dog-walker’s prop, and the ‘trees’ as those of an orchard, rather than a forest. But that’s where the next sentence would come in – not to add to the reader’s grab-bag of definite, cast-iron adjectives, but to offer qualification and adjustment of what they already have. Paragraphs are multi-directional webs of allusion for the reader to negotiate, not linear paths, liberally sprinkled with breadcrumbs for him/her to collect.

I still think “The old man walked through the forest” is a better sentence, though.

And none of my characters do much fuming, enquiring or murmuring, not matter what they might say.