Writing Advice

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part Two: Writing)

Following on from my previous post, this one gathers some thoughts about the writing process. While craft can be learnt from teachers, mentors and writing friends, a writing process can only be acquired through doing. At the same time, much can be gleaned from those who have been in the trenches for many years, which is why I recommend some excellent books and essays here, where I learnt some of the tips that have worked best for me.


The Glide and the Scene

At NYU's Creative Writing Program, back in 2011, even though I was studying an MFA in Poetry, I was permitted to take novelist David Lipsky's craft of fiction class. It was boot camp 101, it was full on, it was David smoking e-cigarettes and real cigarettes out on the steps, conversations constantly interrupted and taken back up again and lectures delivered while rocking back and forth on a skateboard; it was hour-long craft conversations via phone while you were trying to get some work done; It was Nabakov and Lost (the TV programme); it was hilarious, and infuriating, and enlightening. What I took away and have never forgotten, is that - per Lipsky -writing both fiction and nonfiction can be reduced to two core elements: 

(1) The Glide, and (2) the Scene.

The scene you already know. You know you are in a scene when there is dialogue, action, mixed with some pithy description of characters, and description of landscape or cityscape to orientate you. Scenes are the core of the novel or short story or a piece of New Journalism. Getting from from Scene A to B to Scene G: this is where the glide comes in. The glide is everything that is not a scene.

The key point David made was:

Make your scenes as good as you can, employing all the tools of the novelist or fiction writer, even if - especially if - you are writing creative nonfiction. Then, make your glides as interesting as your scenes.

Show and Tell

David liked to remind us that writers are now up against the renaissance of television as a medium. Some of the best writers are writing for HBO. To fully employ our arsenal, we must tell as well as show. Some say show, don't tell, and for the most part it holds true. But we have both at our disposal, and some judicious telling mixed in with showing will go a long way. (In another sense, the glide is the telling, the scene is the showing.) When I first wrote the memoir project I am currently working on, back in 2008 I didn't understand why it didn't "pop". After David's class in 2011-2012, I picked it up again, reread it and realised immediately that 80% of it was telling, not showing. I completely rewrote it according to "show and tell" and "make your glides as interesting as your scenes". That advice alone was worth the dosh it cost to attend that MFA programme.


Draft # 4 by John McPhee

Draft # 4 by John McPhee is a superb book on the craft of nonfiction. If you are writing creative nonfiction, read it. If you are not, read it. The whole book is available on The New Yorker website, where these essays were first published. Here is the link.

On Writer's Block, read his essay "Draft No. 4". For structure - and here he is superb - read (you guessed it) his essay titled "Structure"

The Lead

McPhee offers key advice about writing a lead in this piece for The Wall Street Journal. He writes: 

"You're wading around in your notes, getting nowhere. You don't see a structure for the piece you're trying to write. You don't know what to do. So you stop everything and hunt through your mind for a good beginning, a good way to scissor in. Then do it; write it; get a lead on paper.

If the whole piece of writing is not a long one, you may plunge right on and out the other side and have a finished draft before you know it. But if the piece is to have some combination of substance, complexity and structural juxtaposition, you might begin with that workable lead and then be able to sit back and think about where you are going and how you plan to get there.

Writing a successful lead, in other words, can illuminate the problem for you and cause you to see the piece whole, to see it conceptually, in various parts, to which you then assign your materials. You find your lead, you build your structure, you are now free to write."


Your Memoir, Not Your "Memoirs", and Definitely not Your Autobiography

While we're almost on the subject of memoir, per Vivian Gornick - a memoir is a slice of your life, not your life. It is your life filtered through an arc, a story line, a through line. It is a memoir, not your memoirs, not your autobiography. It's your memoirs if you're Winston Churchill or a famous rugby player, or if someone else is writing the book for you, but otherwise not. Here is Gornick interviewed in The Guardian, linked to above:

"If a memoir is to achieve literature, it has to have an organizing principle, it has to have an idea, it has to have something that will be of value to the disinterested reader,” she said. “And that doesn’t happen so often, because most people who are writing memoirs are not writers.” The books that these other people – celebrities, crime victims – create she calls “testament”, a genre she traces back to the second world war and credits with creating the appetite for memoir in America. But she’s very clear on the nature of the skill involved in elevating the book to literature: “The ability to turn yourself into a persona who is able to generate drama, narrative drive, conflict, all the things that are required, is very hard,” she told me. “And not too many people achieve it.” 


For When Things Get Difficult


The Binder / Folder Method

If you are writing a longer project and need to work out where the various scenes in your draft belong, separate the scenes by page. What I mean is: 

Separate the book according to scenes. Each scene will start on a separate page. Then print out the whole book on single-sided paper. If a scene is a page long, great. If it is several pages long, staple those pages together. Then put the whole project in a binder, then spend some time reading through. Chances are that having the whole thing in front of you, you will gain clarity as to where things can be moved around.

(I was recommended this method by memoirist and essayist Jeannie Vanasco, author of The Glass Eye)


Note Cards / The Fanning Method

McPhee does something similar with notecards. Each scene will be summarised in a word or short sentence, and in this way the arc of the story can be discovered by utilising a bed or a large table - any large or long surface that can give you enough space to lay out your material. By the way, a similar method works for poets who are trying to work out how to order their manuscripts: fan out the poems on a table, or on the floor. It works best if you have a room where you can leave your work overnight, or over several nights. This will not work if you live in a tiny New York apartment.



If you need something more detailed than McPhee, then I thoroughly recommend Sean Coyne's The Story Grid. If the stakes are not high enough in your book and you can't work out what's going wrong, if an editor or an agent or a first reader gives unhelpful and vague advice as to why they think it just isn't working, Then Sean's book is a complete craft class and is incredibly valuable. His concept of the five commandments of story telling is very helpful, and is applicable to a scene or an entire book: 

  1. Inciting Incident

    1. Causal

    2. Coincidence

  2. Progressive Complication

    1. Active Turning Point

    2. Revelatory Turning Point

  3. Crisis

    1. The Best Bad choice

    2. Irreconcilable goods

  4. Climax

  5. Resolution

Often the literary writer will feel that hooking the reader isn't important, but, even literary writers have to keep the reader reading. This is something genre writers take for granted. (The downside of genre is that while the story might be compelling, the writing can be chipboard, not mahogany. Equally well, the problem with mahogany is that it can be "yawn!") Coyne can be a bit down on literary fiction, but if you ignore that and focus on the prize, then this book can be valuable, especially if storytelling isn't your strong suit.


Morning Pages (Per Julia Cameron)

One of the most valuable things I have learnt came via Julia Cameron's book The Artist's Way. As cheesy as some might think it is, apart from following the 12-week course she outlines in the book, her "morning pages" method of getting the ball rolling is invaluable. Since the age of 16 I have written a diary / journal on an almost daily basis, but Cameron's process-driven suggestions helped me to make it a fixed part of the day.

The process is simple: at a time that suits you best (usually the morning works best for most, as clearing the mind of psychological junk via journalling tends to set you on a positive path for the rest of the day), write three pages and do not stop for anything until they are finished. Three pages of Microsoft Word might be a little too much; best to use a size like a Moleskine notebook, which is 19 X 25 centimetres, or 7.5 X 9.75 inches. If you are working on a specific project, you can journal your way into it, as long as you free yourself from perfectionism and judgement as you write; you can write on a bus, a train, the Metro / Subway. The method can adapt to you, and is a valuable way of generating new work. After a week or two, when you have some time, go back over your diary and highlight / underline passages that could be used in a poem, an essay, the short story or novel you're writing. Copy it onto your computer, and there you go: you're already into the second draft. Steinbeck's Journal of a Novel is a great example of a process journal. On the left page he wrote his thoughts before the day's work, then he wrote the novel (East of Eden) on the right hand side.


Writing 15 Minutes A Day

Bearing in mind that writer's block is an issue - and one that isn't talked about enough - one of the best books I have read on the subject is Joan Bolker's Writing Your Dissertation in Fifteen Minutes a Day. I bought it during a lengthy spell of writer's block during a book-length academic thesis, and it saved my bacon. While other books I read about writing a thesis barely acknowledge the psychological difficulties of writing, this book tackles it directly. Her main point is that if you are paralysed, write 15 minutes of anything. "But I'll never finish like that!" I hear you wail. "I'll never get my 10,000 hours under my belt!" LMAO, folks. Yes, but, 15 minutes of writing is better than the nothing you are currently doing. And, the positive reinforcement that ensues once you start means that you will almost never stop at 15 minutes. Something that is in motion will tend to stay in motion, and all that jazz.

Bolker divides the writing process into

  • The zero draft;

  • The first draft;

  • The middle draft;

  • And the final draft.

The zero draft is that point where the manuscript is an unholy mess, where the file contains material not even related to your project; where the draft is disorganised and messy, and exciting, sparking with energy, and a lot of repetition, and dispiriting redundancy. Here is where you got it down on paper, everything can only get better from this point on. Why would the draft contain material not relevant to your book? Well, because one of the ways in is to trick yourself into a sense of safety, and that is by writing anything:

"I don't know what I'm doing. I hate this. I hate this. I hate this. I'm bored. I'm so scared, I wish I could stop. Ok, I'll just write for 10 more minutes and stop."

Until you reach the moment where you write: "What I really want to say in this book is..." Then the door starts to open.

In transitioning from zero to first draft, simply delete all of the throat clearing, print it out, and then mark up the text with a view to things that belong together and cohere. Take notes directly onto the hard copy, then add your changes to the digital version. At this point, you're beginning to make headway into your first draft.

Bolker is great on all of this. I highly recommend her. If you are writing anything other than an academic thesis and the title puts you off,, just substitute novel, poetry, short story, etc., for dissertation. It works for me every time. (On the book's Amazon page, there is some complaining from dissertation students that it would benefit creative writings more than academic writers.)

Finally, her key points are:

  • Write 15 minutes a day;

  • Use journalling to discover and refine what you want to say.

  • Use journalling as a way of writing while you are afraid, and homing in on your core thesis.

  • Use it to write your arguments and counter arguments. "What if A?... What if B?..."

  • Write first (once you've written, the rest of the day is yours).

  • Use the zero draft method;

  • Use the "chunking" technique, which is to split the project into do-able chunks. I.e.,

"Today I'll transcribe my notes"; "tomorrow I'll group them in the file by theme / subject"; "the day after I'll print them out and mark them up"; "the day after, I'll make those changes on the soft copy." You get the picture.


Writing Intelligence

Given that many younger or beginning writers wonder if they're "intelligent or smart enough", I have to admit that I have never heard the word smart used more than at my two years at NYU's creative writing program. I also hear it way too much in literary circles in New York, used as a compliment: the latest smart book or essayist. My side of the world equates "smart" with "a smarty pants", not someone you want to be. A particular book or poet or writer is "smart", a scene is "smart" or not "smart" enough. A sign of our times, too many writers believe a writer's intelligence to be paramount, but It depends on the type of intelligence. I believe that the best writers have in fact been stupid in certain respects. They have been slow, wool gatherers and dreamers, or seemed so to the outside world. Their "smartness" was hidden. Although we need our analytical side, we also need instinct and intuition, not only cerebration.

Like a Tiger in the Lowlands: Advice for Writers (Part One: Reading)

On the Buddhist website Lion's Roar, the esteemed teacher, author, and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Thich Nhat Hanh writes that "When a tiger leaves the mountain and goes to the lowland, it will be caught by humans and killed. When practitioners leave their sangha, they will abandon their practice after a few months. [Note: "Sangha" basically means the community of Buddhism, both religious (monks and nuns) and lay (everyone else).] In order to continue our practice of transformation and healing, we need a sangha. With a sangha it’s much easier to practice, and that is why I always take refuge in my sangha." 

Thich Nhat Hanh's words are Buddhist-directed, but they are equally applicable to writers. In May 2018 I taught a creative writing class at Hill-Stead Museum, as part of the Sunken Garden Poetry Festival, and towards the end we spoke about those key features that can support us in our goals. For me, they are:

  1. Reading

  2. Writing

  3. Community.

I feel that in order to sustain us in a do-able, daily writing practice (even if - especially if - we have nine to five day jobs), it's vital to read and write as close to on a daily basis as possible, and associate with other writers frequently. We have to make sure that we don't get isolated in the lowlands, and instead remain in the "mountain fastness" of our own terrain: the terrain that is both created, sustained and deepened by reading, writing and a writing community. (Regarding the way a writing practice creates our own "turf" or kingdom, Steven Pressfield says the following in The War of Art: "When Arnold Schwarzenegger hits the gym, he’s on his own turf. But what made it his own are the hours and years of sweat he put in to claim it. A territory doesn’t give, it gives back.")

Let's look at the first of the three today, Reading.

Beginning writers are often eager to write, but less often do they realise the importance of reading, and this is despite the fact that almost every established writer will tell you: If you want to write, first you must read. Or at least, you have to read in tandem with writing. (In a related theme, T.S. Eliot is reported to have written in his diary, "Spoke with X today. Says he wants to be a poet. Doesn't say anything about wanting to write poems.") Another thing younger writers are afraid of is being influenced by other writers, or submitting their work for a critique. They believe that all they do, even on the first-draft level, is unassailable. And yet, reading, working a piece through a variety of drafts and being critiqued by others (constructively) are essential to improving as a writer.


Here is a really excellent article by Rebecca Solnit published on Lit Hub, "How to be a Writer: 10 Tips from Rebecca Solnit." About reading, she says: 


 Read good writing, and don’t live in the present. Live in the deep past, with the language of the Koran or the Mabinogion or Mother Goose or Dickens or Dickinson or Baldwin or whatever speaks to you deeply. Literature is not high school and it’s not actually necessary to know what everyone around you is wearing, in terms of style, and being influenced by people who are being published in this very moment is going to make you look just like them, which is probably not a good long-term goal for being yourself or making a meaningful contribution. At any point in history there is a great tide of writers of similar tone, they wash in, they wash out, the strange starfish stay behind, and the conches.  


Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami says something similar in his novel, Norwegian Wood"If you only read the books that everyone else is reading, you can only think what everyone else is thinking. " (Cited in Farnham Street blog.)

When I was a teenager, I phoned up the poet Paul Durcan, who was on a residency at Trinity College, Dublin. First thing he said was, "how did you get this number?" Once I'd explained that the switchboard had put me through, he was mollified, and very generously spoke for half an hour. About reading, he said to read from the present back to the past. Peter Costello, a friend of my father's and the author of many books, including a biography of the young James Joyce (James Joyce: the Years of Growth, 1882 -1915) and In Search of Lake Monsters, said the opposite: to read from the earliest books towards the present: essentially because it is an inverted triangle in terms of quantity, and you might never get out of the present. Both made good points. Reading the classics, as well as lesser known writers, will give you a sense of the continuity of human thought, and an awareness of the prevalence of the same stories across time told via different techniques. Yes, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes, 1:9), but this need not be a cause for despair, but rather, per the Seamus Heaney title, the mystery of a human chain spanning the human story since we settled to grow crops, and before. (Reading books that are not read much anymore today will give you perspectives that are different, and freshen your thinking. Reading your contemporaries, you will get a sense of how stories are told and structured today; and you will gain a sense of where you might fit, or do not fit, in the current world of writing. Reading works in translation will give you another perspective, and reading those same books in the original will give you an added advantage, in the career sense as a writer, but more important, spiritually or vocationally, it will deepen and widen your field of practice, your inner "sangha".

This is because languages think differently to each other. In Gaelic, or Irish, you cannot "have" anything. Instead, possessions have to be at you. In Spanish, instead of saying, "I dropped the glass," they say, "se me cae el vaso" - the glass falls from me. I am not trying to say that Spaniards abdicate responsibility for their actions, but languages reveal worlds in terms of psychology and national character. And if you are a writer, another language can enrich your work, if you will be disciplined enough to read in your foreign language.

Getting back on point, have you ever read a poem by a young poet that reads like Shelley filtered through the point of view of an Edwardian, filtered through a teenaged shoe-gazing Curehead? That last reference ages me, I know. But my point is, she or he most probably hasn't read the poems that are being published today, whether in journals or in books, and doesn't realise how poetry has moved on the last 100 years(!), into a vernacular, modern voice. Look at the difference between W.B. Yeats and Patrick Kavanagh. Seamus Heaney and all the Irish poets of subsequent generations credit Kavanagh, not Yeats, for breaking the mould and liberating Irish poets into (1) an awareness that the local was worthy of being told, or written, and, (2) that the language of today was a worthy instrument in which to tell it. (Previously, writers like Synge and Yeats were doing the telling; later, with Kavanagh, and subsequently Heaney, the "peasant class" that had been the subjects of that literature became the writers. Tomás Ó Criomhthain did something similar, or more extreme, in Irish, in his book An t-Oileánach, or The Island Man. Within his lifetime, he moved from illiterate dweller within the oral tradition to a man of letters and a writer of celebrated books, in which he simultaneously chronicled the end of a way of life on the Blasket Islands.)

Robert Frost's use of a local, current voice is similar to what Kavanagh did for Irish poetry. (I won't say modern, as that might teeter us too close to modernist, and neither Frost nor Kavanagh were modernists.)

So, why read? Influence, and practice. Look at a child playing soccer during World Cup fever, or a banging a tennis ball against a wall with her older brother's racket during Wimbledon. Chances are, they have been inspired by what they were watching a few minutes earlier, and can't wait to imitate their heroes. They are excited. Writers are the same. By reading the work of those who have come before, and those who are around us now, we begin to understand what has already been done; what is worth doing; and, we find work-arounds, or tiny niches where we might fit, and extend and expand the conversation. It was not by chance that the incredible German-language poet Rainer Maria Rilke, in Letters to a Young Poet, said: 

 Don't write love poems; avoid those forms that are too facile and ordinary: they are the hardest to work with, and it takes a great, fully ripened power to create something individual where good, even glorious, traditions exist in abundance. So rescue yourself from these general themes and write about what your everyday life offers you; describe your sorrows and desires, the thoughts that pass through your mind and your belief in some kind of beauty. 

Although I will talk about community in a day or two, I would like to stress that reading is already about community, and communion. In reading, we "submit" to the "vivid and continuous dream" (John Gardner, in Becoming a Novelist) of a book that we trust. We are in communion with the writer's work, with the cultures and lives of the past. How else are we to live in the present and to avoid the trap whereby we repeat the past? This is a general point for us as citizens, but more specifically, as writers we do not only need to associate with other living writers. Some of our most valuable and important lessons come from mentors who are dead, who died hundreds of years before we were born.

We find our own voice by imitation: by letting other writers' voices wash through us. A writer in the wonderful The Paris Review interviews wrote that they learnt to write by following a mentor's advice, which was to read all of Faulkner, and then wash it out by reading all of Hemingway. (It might have been Joan Didion, but I don't have that specific volume to hand.) After much of this kind of reading, and a lot of practice, what remained was her own.

By allowing yourself to be influenced, you will not be copying or plagiarising. The writing mind is a strange filtration system, and reading and then writing under the influence (of writers who inspire us) is where the rubber meets the road.