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Jo-Anne Richards

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Writing Secrets: You’re the doorman, not the bouncer

I once had a journalism student (If you’re out there reading this P, you’ll recognise your younger, idealistic self), who set out to write a feature about young women who were forced into prostitution after trying to escape desperate circumstances.

He was (and still is) a good writer, but when he gave me a draft, I advised him to start all over again. It consisted of this kind of thing: I climbed the stairs, the smell of excrement and boiled cabbage filling me with nausea. I was filled with horror when I saw Nadia’s bruised face. Tears rose and threatened to spill. I could hardly speak…

This is a classic case of a narrator standing in the way, blocking our view of his subject. Much as we might crane our necks to see past him, we can’t see Nadia at all. All we can see is P’s nausea, his feelings of horror, his tears and emotion.

Your job, as a writer, is not to tell us about how something makes you feel. It is to make us experience those feelings ourselves. We want to get to know Nadia, see, hear and feel what her story does to us. We want to get a lump in our throats. P should be standing aside, showing her to us, giving us access to her, her environment, and her story, so that we’re hardly aware of him at all.

He was so shocked himself that he forgot this.

This has lessons for fiction as well as non-fiction. Don’t stand in front of what you’re writing about. Don’t interpret it for us. Stand subtly aside so that we can see your subjects. Show us the outward manifestations, so that we can interpret their emotions for ourselves. We don’t want you to tell us what those emotions are, or what and how they evoke emotions in you.

As a writer, you’re the doorman. Open the door, stand aside and let us enter into other people’s lives. You’re not the bouncer, standing firmly in front of it, blocking our view, yet telling us how exclusive it is inside.

Upcoming courses

Cape Town Creative Saturday – 4 February

Online Creative Writing Course - Starting 6 February

Johannesburg and Cape Town Creative Writing Course – Starting 6 February

Click here for a comprehensive list of our 2017 courses

 

 

Writing Secrets: Making the intentions work for you

2017_01-text-bubbleEach morning that I sit down to write I think I won’t be able to do it.

I know it’s pathetic. I’ve written five books, but when I contemplate a day’s writing, I panic.

When that happens, anything seems more appealing than staring at a blank screen. I’ve been drawn to do the most extraordinary things: like tidy out all the cupboards or wipe the kitchen drawers. I know, can you believe it?

Last week I was talking about setting intentions and this, I suppose, is a continuation of that theme.

There is a time when writing requires contemplation for ideas to coalesce. To write you need sometimes to daydream; to allow your thoughts to roam aimlessly.

But this is dangerous territory. When does “the need to allow my thoughts to coalesce” turn into “I’m procrastinating madly by gazing at the sea and having deep thoughts”.

Keep a notebook in your hand when you’re day dreaming and thinking big thoughts. Scribble them down. It keeps the thoughts deep, rather than allowing them to drift into inconsequentials. It focuses the mind.

Try to be honest about when you’re ready to start. If you know your characters backwards, have a good idea of what’s going to happen to them and which direction you’ll take them in, and if you know exactly what will happen in your first couple of scenes, then you’re ready.

Set your writing times for the week. Don’t wait for inspiration. You’ll be ninety-four and the inspiration will finally strike … but you wont’ be able to remember what it was for.

Can you realistically write from 4 to 6am every morning? Or can you squeeze three hours on Saturdays and four on Sundays? Whatever time you can manage is fine. Just ring-fence it. Don’t allow anything at all to intrude on it. Don’t ever allow yourself to think: oh hell, I didn’t finish doing my tax. I’ll use …

No, and don’t let anyone else encroach on it either. If you tell people you’ll be writing, they’ll think: Oh yay, she’s not working. I’ll surprise her by turning up for a coffee. Lie if necessary. Tell them you have this massive deadline and won’t be able to pay your rent unless you work Saturday morning.

Lying is such good practice, anyway. You can feel virtuous about it. It’s an excellent way of developing your imagination.

***

Commit to making 2017 your best writing year yet by signing up for our intensive 10-Day Writing Workout, our in-depth Creative Writing Course, or any of our creative escapes.

Click here for a complete list of what Allaboutwriting has to offer in 2017

The new year’s promise

2017 success
I hope your new year’s resolution involved fostering your creativity rather than your business success or your abs.

I’m not against gyms and I’m certainly not anti-success. Happy new year, by the way. But our lives are so busy that we need that other dimension for true happiness. We need time to day-dream, time to exercise our creative muscles.

I truly believe it’s essential to our mental and spiritual health.

We get any number of people attending our creative writing courses who simply want to find their lost ability to imagine. They’ve spent their lives in corporate or doing other things, and suddenly they realise they’ve allowed something important to disappear from their lives.

I do believe in setting intentions. Resolutions are an important way of building discipline. We challenge ourselves to hold to our promises. But they don’t need to become the albatross we’ll dangle around our necks to make us feel bad about ourselves.

When it comes to writing, make your resolution manageable. Perhaps even more than manageable. Then, when you exceed your expectations, you’ll feel really good about yourself. Writing is largely about discipline and if you can entrench that discipline in your life, it will start to become second nature.

What you don’t want to do is make a resolution like: Write War and Peace for the modern times. Or even, write that book you’ve been meaning to. It’s too large and threatening.

Why do people do that with writing (and to themselves?) They say: this is the year I’m going to take piano lessons. They don’t say: this is the year I’m going to play at the Albert Hall.

Decide rather to develop your characters. Or, if you’re not at all sure where to start, take a writing course. Sign up for a workshop.  It’ll get you writing, entrench a discipline, and the ideas will flow from there.

If you’re busy on a project, but you’re feeling stuck, set yourself the task of writing three great sentences. Don’t scoff. Even one good sentence is better than none at all, and once you’ve written three, you may find that it starts to flow. It may be slow as treacle, but if you write four good sentences, you’ll feel great about yourself.

You may not be stuck at all. You may know exactly where you’re going with your project. But I still say: set yourself a manageable target for your writing regime. Success is good for the soul.

***

Commit to making 2017 your best writing year yet by signing up for our intensive 10-Day Writing Workout, our in-depth Creative Writing Course, or any of our creative escapes.

Click here for a complete list of what Allaboutwriting has to offer in 2017

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: See the world through a story-teller’s eyes

21 December 2016.JPGIf you can do this, then every holiday, every trip you take, can feed your writing. You’re never really resting. You’re observing, collating, picking up material.

I suppose this is a continuation of the theme I began last week. How can you use the holidays to practise your writing, without locking yourself away entirely.

See yourself as a character and your life as a series of journeys. When you tell stories at the dinner table, tell them as a series of scenes, with dialogue. Collect anecdotes and scenes, scraps of dialogue and even phrases from the people around you . Scribble them down in your notebook.

Everything becomes grist to the mill eventually, and if you can see life through a story-teller’s eyes, everything becomes a good story eventually.

For many years after I left home, I always cried at Christmas. I retained the magical feeling that something special would happen. I wanted to reclaim the excitement of waking at dawn, on a still summer’s morning, to discover a red Size 26 bicycle at the foot of my bed.

That was probably my all-time best Christmas present. Bikes meant independence, and a Size 26 was my first grown-up bike. There’s a little piece of me that still gets excited; that still longs for the anticipation of a morning like that.

Yet most of my home Chistmases went wrong in some critical way. Like the year the overgrown puppy challenged the old dog for a scrap under the table and everyone ended up with dog bites. Or the old dog choked on a turkey bone and passed out, so that my dad was forced to stick his hand down her throat and give her CPR. Or the year the entire family erupted into full-scale war over …well, who can remember now. And then there was the time a distant relative, strict teetotaler that he was, kept slipping off to the loo until he collapsed (drooling slightly) into my Christmas dinner.

Writers draw from life all the time. This is not to say they write autobiography. But they pinch aspects of life and use them in entirely different ways, for different purposes.

My very first book was about a Christmas that went critically wrong. It was a coming of age, and I did use it to show something about the society we lived in. At other times, in different books, I’ve also used real-life fights with husbands, but given them to friends.

So, as a writer, you’re never not writing at all. You’re watching, collecting, practising. It’s just a matter of the way you see life: not as a string of discrete events, but as a series of stories, which build and grow.

If you celebrate Christmas, I wish you a good one. Otherwise, I wish you a happy holiday and time to spend with those you love. There’ll be no blog from me next week since Allaboutwriting is closing for a week, but I’ll see you bright and chirpy in the new year.

***

Click here to read this week’s Monday Motivation

Click here for all our 2017 course dates

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Go back to the beginning

07 December.JPGI rewrote the beginning of my last book about four more times than I edited the whole book (which was a lot).

I wanted the book to build up more gradually than, say, a thriller would. I wanted the start to develop a strong sense of my characters and their world. What I ended up with, though, was not gradual at all, but plain dreary.

I had become used to it. I was too fond of my own characters to notice. I forgot something absolutely basic – the start of a book must certainly introduce us to the characters in the world, but that’s not nearly enough. It has to draw us in. And that means tension and great dollops of literary conflict.

This doesn’t mean that my character has to be fighting someone. Literary conflict has a different meaning from conflict in real life. Basically, it means she must be facing something profound. Something has disturbed the balance of her life (otherwise there’s no story).

We’re often so in love with our own characters, we think readers will fall just as much in love  – at first sight. Sorry. A beginning must set up our first dates with them. Beyond creating the opportunity for us just to see them, our first meetings with them must fascinate, tease and intrigue us. We must find them attractive enough to follow through their story, and their lives must contain enough tension to force us to read on – even if this tension is entirely internal.

And here’s another thing I learnt and which, I believe, is a common discovery. I was feeling my way into a character who was quite different from me. In the first few chapters, I was still finding her voice. Further into the book, I embodied her more fully. Somehow I had to take the voice she developed during the course of the story, and allow that to infuse the beginning too.

I didn’t just rework the beginning. I scrapped it. I didn’t want its imperfect voice to creep into the new chapters, as it might if I simply fiddled with it. Once I had climbed inside her and taken on her tone and humour, I was able to embark on a completely new beginning.

As every journalist knows, you should probably spend as much time on your lead as you do on the rest of your piece.

***

Click here for our 2017 dates

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

***

Click here to read this week’s Monday Motivation: Make ‘em hungry for more

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: If you want for nothing – it’s the end of your story

30 November.JPGIn life people speak about “wanting for nothing” as though it’s a good thing.

Actually, in life and in stories, it’s not a good thing at all. It means, basically, that we’re ready for death. Sure, many of us should strive to make do with less, in material terms. We should want fewer “things”.

But we wouldn’t be human if we didn’t long for success, to produce something exceptional, perhaps for spiritual enlightenment.

As far as characters are concerned, there’s no such thing as wanting for nothing. Wanting things, longing for things, gives your character energy and intensity. It is essential to story.

Kurt Vonnegut said that every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.

Their larger desires set up the basis for a story. When they want nothing and aren’t prepared to fight for anything, clearly you can close the book and go to bed.

But their smaller desire for, say, a glass of water, sets up tension on every page, and provides your characters with agency. Their smaller desires provide complexity.

No reader is that interested in following the travails of a passive character to whom things just happen. We have little patience with them. And, if they start out passive, they’d better gain some agency before too much time has elapsed.

In life, we tend not to find people compelling if there’s nothing at all they’re looking forward to. Why should we put up with it in a character.

***

Click here for our 2017 dates

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Don’t swindle us out of our drama

23 November.JPGDon’t cheat readers of their drama. Last week I spoke about writing as a two-way exchange of trust. Part of that trust is playing fair. Readers don’t like to feel ripped off.

I gave this advice to one of our mentoring participants recently. He’s given his permission to use a piece of his writing to make a point, but I’ve suitably changed it so it won’t be recognisable.

His protagonist is a young man of reduced circumstances who was able to study because of the kindness of a benefactor. It has been made clear that he needs to prove himself worthy. He’s terrified that, should he fail, or mess up, his benefactor, Mr Melville, will withdraw his support. At this point of the story, He has got into deep trouble at university. He has been set up to take the fall for something he didn’t do.

Here is the end of a scene in which he’s been called in to see his house warden, Labuschagne:

Labuschagne stood up suddenly. “Ah here they are.” He looked past my right shoulder.

I turned my head. A middle aged couple were walking up the path. I froze.

“Michael?” There was an iciness in his voice. An iciness that told me Mr Melville was fucking angry.

Great cliff-hanger, right? I was dying to get his next submission. The stakes were high. I cared about Michael and couldn’t bear to think of his having to take the fall. This was a dark night of the soul. I desperately wanted to see it play out. Except that it didn’t.

While watching a sports match, our Michael recalls that it was “hectic” when Mr and Mrs Melville showed up. Mr Melville was “freaked out”, but his warden assured him that, not only did he believe in Michael, but that he would get to the bottom of things.

After watching a couple more balls played, he recalls the fact that his warden did in fact manage to sort things out for him.

I felt cheated, and told him so. I wanted my full allotment of drama, served up in scenes. I didn’t want to be told of it all in retrospect. I wanted to see how Mr Melville reacted, in the moment, and have my heart in my mouth with Michael, as we waited to discover his fate.

***

Click here for our 2017 dates

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

 

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: It’s a matter of trust

16-novemberReading and writing creates a two-way exchange. It’s a matter of trust. The reader must trust their imagination to the writer, who in turn must trust and believe in their readers.

This is a little mantra of mine, which I’m always telling our writing participants. Readers are clever. Don’t insult their intelligence.

And yet, often,we can’t help ourselves. I keep coming across instances in our mentoring work (and sometimes in my own – hopefully now only in my early drafts). A writer will show something perfectly … and then go on to hammer it home by explaining.

Jane couldn’t speak. Her throat felt blocked, as though she were choking on mud. She was completely overcome by emotion.

Readers are skilled in picking up the cues, just as we are in real life. When we read, we notice the slightest significance. I’ve been reading a book about a couple who met among the Armenian refugees in Aleppo, at the time of the genocide. The story of their grand-daughter, who researches their history, runs parallel.

The early part of their relationship, naturally, occurs in fraught and terrifying circumstances, but the grand-daughter portrays their later relationship in America as happy and strong. Except … among the references to laughter and love, she makes a passing remark about their grandmother’s periodic descent into “moodiness”, during which times she was told to leave her alone.

From the time it’s mentioned, we readers are primed to see this “moodiness” as significant. Something else happened, beyond the horrors we know she witnessed as a refugee camp nurse. Some secret, yet to be revealed, worried her to the end of her days. It’s something we’ll read on to discover.

The lesson is that you can be as subtle as you like. You don’t have to pound home the fact that something bothered her, something she didn’t speak about – and which their descendant will discover and reveal to us. You can make the barest mention of a mood that descends sometimes … it’s enough.

***

Click here for our 2017 dates

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

 

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Time the punchline

09-novemberPeople always talk about stand-up comedians and their timing – but you seldom hear people comment on the excellent timing of writers. And yet timing is essential to making a piece of writing work.

You need to know when to hold back, and when to continue, when to pause and when to stop altogether. You need to sense when to set something up and when to pay it off (rather like the comedian’s punch line.) When you reach the exact point you should pull the curtain on a scene, you should feel it somewhere deep in your gut.

I think the best way to learn timing is to read a great deal. When I read this recently, I was struck by the great timing, and how it forced me to turn the page. It stops at a point where a good couple of questions still hang in the air. Nothing has been answered.

It’s just the perfect place to end this scene. Isn’t it great?

I’ve taken it from Maggie O’Farrell’s The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Iris has just received a telephone call from a man she doesn’t know, who says he’s calling from a hospital – she doesn’t catch the name. He informs her that she is the contact family member for a Euphemia Lennox, someone Iris has never heard of. He confirms that she has power of attorney for her grandmother, who is in full time nursing care, then tells her that Euphemia is her grandmother’s sister:

Iris is really cross now. ‘She doesn’t have a sister.’

There is a pause in which Iris can hear the man moving his lips over his teeth.

‘I’m afraid I must contradict you,’ he says eventually.

‘She doesn’t. I know she doesn’t. She’s an only one, like me. Are you telling me I don’t know my own family tree?’

‘The trustees of Cauldstone have been trying to trace…’

‘Cauldstone? Isn’t that the…the…’ Iris fights to come up with a word other than looney-bin ‘…asylum?’

The man coughs. ‘It’s a unit specialising in psychiatry. Was, I should say.’

‘Was?’

‘It’s closing down. Which is why we’re contacting you.’

***

Click here for our 2016 dates.

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.

 

 

The secrets behind the practice of good writing: Don’t forget the triggers

02-novemberSay you’ve set up a mystery in your novel. All through her life, a young woman has tried to get her father to talk about her long-lost mother. He has resisted and she has lived with the mystery.

Then one day, she pops round to see the old guy in his dotage and he says: “Okay, I’m ready to tell you now. Here’s the reason I’ve never spoken about your mother.”

It doesn’t wash, does it?

It’s anti-climactic. We’ve been waiting and waiting for this revelation and then, suddenly, by complete co-incidence, he chooses this particular Monday – with nothing special about it – to tell her.

Something has to trigger that revelation. He must be forced to it by circumstances. We must see that something has changed.

The same goes for people suddenly behaving differently or out of character. If he never swims, but then decides to swim on that particular day, we want to know why.

Something must happen which makes him wish (or forces him) to change the habit of a lifetime. Or, we simply won’t believe it.

***

Click here for our 2016 dates.

My 2016 blogs will continue to try to uncover the secrets behind the practice of good writing.

Please join the discussion and if you have discovered something that has made a great difference to some aspect of your writing, please send it to me. I’ll share it on the blog and we can discuss it.

Each blog will deal with a secret that may have occurred to me through reading or mentoring other people’s work. Or they may  be lessons hard learnt through five of my own books. Many will be applicable to fiction and non-fiction, while some might refer to one or the other.  When you tackle a piece of writing, you always have a vision of the perfect work it will be. As you write, you become increasingly aware of how it falls short of the perfection you wish for it. Writing (and rewriting) is the process of trying to bring it as close as you possibly can to that vision. Here, I will try to share those little gems which should bring all our writing one step closer to the perfect piece of writing – one blog at a time. Some might tackle the process of writing or how to keep writing, while some will look at language, characterisation or story. Some might be more general, while others will be very specific. But each will be a piece of advice that I believe in and that I hope will help make us all into better writers.