Friday, 17 April 2009

Thursday night coffee break

Figured I'd best not wait for Friday morning, since I'm running about five hours behind most of you. Twelve hours behind some. I didn’t think to lay in any special coffees for the event, but I’ve brewed up a pot of my regular stock: Chock Full o'Nuts. Chock Full o'Nuts does not contain any nuts, as far as I can tell, and is supposedly a New York tradition. I hate New York City, but the coffee’s good. Got a variety pack of Bigelow teas here as well, though I don't know how they are. British writer Karen Traviss once said all American teas taste like gnat piss (though she didn't clarify how she knew that with any accuracy). As for noshes…. Well, it was my night to cook, which means there's left over pizza. Your choice of vegetarian or double pepperoni (they got a little heavy handed with the cilantro on the veggie this time around). And a couple of unopened bags of Pepperidge Farms cookies (the gingers or the milanos; don’t touch the Bordeaux, those are Valerie's).

Did you hear about the pianist who would never practices scales unless there was a paying audience in attendance? No? Well, there’s a reason you haven't. Such a creature does not exist. Musicians practice weeks for every minute in the concert hall. Actors spend months in rehearsal before taking to the stage. Dancers exercise for hours every day. Painters fill sketch books by the gross lot with lines and details and cover acres of canvas board with experiments in shading and blending pigments. While writers …. Outside of the classroom or workshop, writers as a general rule tend to regard practice as something they've outgrown or moved beyond. The fact is writers need to practice their craft just as seriously as any other creative artist.

At one level, of course, all writing is practice. And it can be argued that each successive draft of a manuscript is a form of practice. But practice practice -- as in the concert soloist beginning every rehearsal with scale exercises -- is something writers avoid.

I've mentioned before attending Oregon Coast writers' workshops conducted by Dean Wesley Smith and his wife Kristine Kathryn Rusch. You don't see Dean's name on the shelves very often because he's a ghost writer, and Kris uses a half dozen pseudonyms, but between the two of them they have published a hundred novels and uncounted short stories. They take their craft very seriously. And one thing they both do -- and advocate -- is practice.

Dean practices things he can not do that others can. He reads voraciously, but does not think about how a writer tells a story while he's reading it and while he notes cool or interesting things while reading, he doesn't dwell on them. But if, six months later, he remembers a particularly vivid moment or an exchange of dialog or a theme or a mood -- he goes back and finds that passage (or that whole story) and deconstructs how the writer did it. Then he practices -- doing the same thing with no other purpose beyond getting the steps and the rhythm of the process down. (When I was there last he was trying to capture Bill Bryson's ability to evoke an entire culture with two lines of dialog.) His exercises focus on the nuts-and-bolts craftsmanship of storytelling.

Kris teaches lessons that are every bit as concrete but focus on the mental and emotional source of the story. One night we were asked to describe in at least 2000 words a place we hated. Not hated a little -- like train station restrooms -- but really, deeply, personally hated; in detail, in a way that would make the reader hate it as much as we did. (I wrote about the room in which my mother died.) The next night we were to write another 2000-word description, changing not one thing in the setting, from the perspective of a person who absolutely adored the space. The third night we had to write a short story that took place in that setting. The same with sex. She asked each of us to write about losing our virginity -- recalling our emotions as well as physical experiences as honestly and accurately as we could recall (no, these stories were not shared with the class). The next night we wrote the scene from the other person's perspective (and every class at least one joker asks "what if there was no other person?"). The third night we wrote an erotic love story.

Do I still practice these techniques? Yes; these and others. I will take a picture from a magazine and write descriptions -- changing nothing, but told from the perspective of the mother who saw her son killed there, the old man who as a boy met the girl who would share the rest of his life there, etc. I experiment with the voice and style of other writers -- trying to find something I can take as my own (or proving definitely that there's nothing of theirs I can make mine). I have scenes, vignettes, bits of dialog, that will never go anywhere or be read by anyone. My notebook equivalents to the artist's sketch book or the violinist's finger exercises.

How about you? What do you do to practice your craftsmanship? How do you stretch your storytelling muscles? What techniques help you limber up and get in shape for writing your breakout novel?


Annieye said...

Firstly, thank you to whoever has developed this fantastic writing resource link list on the sidebar. I should think it answers just about every question a writer might have.

KeVin - no coffee for me, thanks. It's too early and I can't do without my good old British tea in the mornings. I'll pass on the biscuits because yesterday I ate a 'Not for Girls' Yorkie bar and I am supposed to be on a diet.

I write as part of my full-time day job, and so I suppose I'm practising all the time. (Reports, committee minutes and local government stuff ... yawn!)

The front compartment of my handbag is stuffed full of scraps of paper of mannerisms. For example a particular police officer who regularly attends Council meetings always thrusts boths hands into his trouser pockets and jingles the coins/keys when he's delivering bad news about the crime statistics. Another - a councillor - leans forwards at the table and hooks her feet around the front legs of the chair when she's interested in the report in front of her. Then there is a councillor with one ear higher than the other. He's been embarrassed about it all his life. How do I know this? Because when he meets a speaker, or anyone new, he shakes their hand in greeting and then, as he's making polite small talk, he subconsciously pulls at the earlobe of the one that's slightly higher. I actually noticed that he did this before I realised his ears weren't level!

When I'm reading for pleasure, I seem to either be on a heady high (because I think I can write better) or on a self-deprecating low (because the writing is so brilliant I know I'll never write so well myself). I make a note of bad bits and good bits and, I too, try to deconstruct them to find out why they are bad/good.

The back few pages of my minute book are covered with bits of scribbled practice pieces. I do this while someone is delivering a presentation - they sometimes go on for an hour or more and we don't take minutes of presentations. No-one notices what I'm really doing! If I'm working on a scene in my novel, I'll sometimes draft it out in this 'wasted' work time.

In essence I think good story-telling is about observation and making the best use of every bit of spare time you have, and this is especially important if you are not a full-time writer.

Fiona said...

Kevin, this is wonderful stuff. Thank you.

Although I've tried to write notes to help me write, I find I can hardly read or make sense of them. It was such a relief to be assessed as dyslexic and of having Irlings Syndrome - think I've spelt that wrong but it means I can't cope with black text on white paper a bit like being colour blind.

I've just got a dictaphone and when I do take notes, I do clusters.

The ability to write has always seemed like somethng writers were born with and it's great to find you can learn so many techniques and disciplines. I now have to start with characters - each with their own script before plotting a story.
Sol Stein has been a big influence too.

DOT said...

Thanks for your post, Kevin. I completely agree with you on the need for writers to practise.

My own practice has, till now, been less structured than some of the exercises you have noted here.

I do refer to favoured books to try and capture a style, tone or structure that seems appropriate to a passage I am writing.

I also carry a small notebook in which I note overheard snippets of conversation that seem to me to define a particular personality, an unusual phrasing, or a striking observation.

I will certainly re-examine the way I set about my homework after reading this.

liz fenwick said...

You took me on a trip down memory lane with the coffee....haven't heard that in years :-)

Excellant exercises. I think August Rock for me has been pratice and even the current rewrite is another bash at something different. The rewrites have certainly improved my writing of other works no end.

I am envious of your tutor who can just read books. I very rarely can now. It is bliss when I am totally swept away in the story and don't see the craft or lack there of when I am reading these days.

Leatherdykeuk said...

95% of everything I write is just throwaway practice. I completely agree that one has to do a lot of writing in the background to get anything worthwhile.

If I ever became popular and then died, they could do a Michael Creighton on me for twenty years with all the crap I have stored.

NoviceNovelist said...

Thanks Kevin - a great post. Huge NY skinny latte with an extra shot of expresso would do me nicely this morning!!!

I love the sound of the workshops you attended. I don't think I do anything spcific to practice other than to just write. I totally agree that to expect to get better at the craft without practice is a crazy notion. I always notice my writing improves when I have been giving it time and then when I have a break - it gets rusty. When I wrote regularly I give myself permission more readily to write crap knowing I can come back and fix it. When I write sporadically I seem to forget that bit and get frustrated.

Anonymous said...

Cappuccino for me please. Coffee and dessert in one go.

I used to practise much more than I do these days. Myself and some writing friends used the Cloud Line blog for weekly, prompt-driven exercises. Unfortunately this has stagnated.

My only other method for practise, at present, is to work on several writing projects concurrently. I use one as practice for the other. Not the best option but probably better than nothing.

Incidentally, I have trouble with the word "practic/se". Is the following correct?

Noun: Practice
Verb: Practise

Annie: The side-bar links were a joint effort between myself (techie bits) and Calistro (actually doing the research and providing the URLs).

Flowerpot said...

Great post and also I'd like to second a thank you for the side bar information - incredible resources. Well as a journalist I suppose I am editing the whole time - journalism is cutting, cutting, cutting. And I do find that phrases will come to me when I'm out walking the dog. A ploughed field like chocolate fudge icing - was one yesterday. And to a certain extent my blog is a warm up. There's always room for more I guess.

Clare Sudders said...

I too am appreciating the list of resource links. Thankyou to whoever put that there.

But anyway... Kevin, what a fantastic coffee morning! Just your post in itself was informative and thought provoking. Thank you.

Practice... hmm. Every now and then I read about things like the exercises you mention in your piece, and I think oooh, I should do something like that... but then I don't get round to it. Available time is a big issue for me. But then again, I also spend an awful lot of time faffing about and avoiding work, and it occurs to me that these exercises would be both enjoyable and useful procrastination replacements [makes note].

But I think I do practice writing... and I do that on my blog. I've attempted to turn blog pieces into paid gigs, so far with no luck (although one piece is very close to being published), but mostly what I do on the blog is never intended as paid writing work. It's just for me. But it also serves as writing practice, albeit not as focused or arguably as useful as the exercises you mention.

The other thing I do is read as much fiction as possible (still not much, as I have little spare time and am a slow reader, but it's better than nothing). I don't know if that counts as practice so much as research, but it's definitely part of the unpaid - and integral - stuff I do as a writer.

Another thing I was just thinking about the other day as I looked at my schedule for the next 6 months and despaired at how little time was available...

I've always said that before writing the next novel I would write some short stories as a way of experimenting with tone, style, technique and the various candidate plots I'm considering. I said it before I wrote Novel II and also Novel III and now I'm looking at Novel IV... I think it's a brilliant idea, but I've never actually managed to do it. Maybe this time... but looking at the time I have available, maybe not. Bother.

Graeme K Talboys said...

Well, I have a big box full of notebooks in which I have scribbled things. Some have been developed a bit more, played with and put back. I edit a magazine, write short reviews of books I have read, write blogs, read vast quantities.

I am somewhat averse to the idea of analysing another writer's technique to that degree as, very often, they have written it from the heart rather than the head. Besides I don't want to write like other writers.

Everything I write is an attempt to improve on what I have already done and try something new. I don't suppose that cuts much mustard with the publishing world as they pretty much like an author to stay within a niche. I've had several agents in the past reject representing me on the grounds that my writing covers too broad a field - no marketing angle. Frustrating as that is (no chance of a breakthrough novel in that climate) I would rather plough my own (broad) field than walk in someone else's.

Clare Sudders said...

Captain Black: You're right about the distinction between practice and practise. The way I remember is by thinking of advice and advise, which follows the same rule but is easier to remember because the two words are pronounced differently.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Clare, I'll take your advice :o)

Clare Sudders said...


KeVin K. said...

Captain, you sent me to the dictionary. Never heard of "practise." Guess what? It's the "Canadian and U.K. variant spelling of 'practice'."
'Practice' does double duty here in the USofA.

I was reminded of a talk show the other day. The guest was a British writer who evidently writes about grammar in an amusing way. (I was driving and could not write down his name, though I do want to find some of his work.) One thing he'd found particularly amusing was an American reference book written nearly a century ago called "Strunk & White." Pretty much grammar gospel over here but apparently filled with howling misinformation.

Graeme, I didn't mean to imply a writer should practice copying another's style. It's more a case of one magician figuring out the technique behind another's trick. Or a cabinet maker studying another wood carver's work to determine what blades she used. It's information you can use in creating something that's uniquely yours.

JJ Beattie said...

Morning all. A big cup of tea for me. Look, I even brought my own teabags. Oooh, I'd love to do some formal exercises like those you mention Kevin but I know I won't do them all on my own. I want to go to writing school.

Reading, writing, blogging, notetaking while out and about are all forms of practice... BUT for me so is this novel. I am learning so much by writing it but I know it might not be good enough (even when finished) to be published so this is part of my apprenticeship too.

Now, I'm off to pack my bags for the UK: HURRAH.

CC Devine said...

Thought-provoking post Kevin - thank you! I fully agree with you.

I tend to use notebooks for quotes, anecdotes or interesting people I see around town who leave me wondering about what their lives are like etc. Occasionally I will flesh these out and do exercises but not often. I feel like I've been refining and improving my writing on the numerous drafts of my current wip. When do you accept defeat and shove it in the bottom drawer?

I love the idea of rewriting a piece from a different pov and am going to set myself some homework for this weekend!

Wordtryst - Liane Spicer said...

You've given me much food for thought here, Kevin, yet I have reservations. I don't do structured exercises. That sounds a hell of a lot like school, and I've spent so many years as a student and as a teacher that I shy away from anything that makes me feel I'm back there.

My practice is reading - widely, deeply, shallowly, aimlessly, purposefully... And I'm a great believer in intuitive writing because it works for me. When I wrote my first novel I hadn't read any books on the craft or practised any techniques, yet a terrific agent signed me on the strength of the writing. Even now that the novel has been published, having Michael Ondaatje's and Louis Sachar's agent love my work has been the greatest validation of my life. I'm not name-dropping to show off; I want to make the point that having their agent validate the results of my furtive scribblings ranks right up there with the birth of my child. And this without formal instruction in the craft of novel writing.

Now, several years and several how-to books later, I'm much more self-conscious about the whole process, more critical of myself, more insecure, more terrified, basically. It all works against me and right now I'm striving to find some process that would take me back to the state in which I began writing, when the story in my head did not have to compete with all the voices 'out there' with their judgements, guidelines, intructions, taboos, and all the rest, whether real or imagined.

It's the same with the 'practice' and 'exercises'. I have nothing against these, per se. They obviously work fine for some people. For me, practice takes the form of writing the story. I've practised writing a memoir; I'll continue to practise at it until it feels polished enough for a public performance/exhibition. I'm practising a mainstream novel; maybe I'll get it to the concert stage, maybe not. Either way, I would have learned by writing, not by practising how to write.

Of course, I may be wrong.

Captain Black, I wrote (and taught) UK English (or just plain 'English') all my life, but my publisher is American so I'm continually having to modify words like practice/practise, licence/license, labor/labour, ad infinitum. There's a weird thing they do with quotation marks, too. Wish those Yankees would stop messing with the language. Yes, Kevin, I mean you. :)

KeVin K. said...

The difference between a living language and a dead one, kid....

Fiona said...

Those of us with teenage children will know that the gap between our language here and over the pond is narrowing.

I wrote, 'whilst' the other day and my boys fell about laughing.

Un Peu Loufoque said...

Alas kevin whislt I feel your ideas are trenendous adn shall certainly try the writing abotu an image frmo differnt perspectives things in terms of limbering up my pen I am a couch potato compared to everyone else! I do however write in my head the entire time, make up stories cahracters lives for people and buildings and palces I glance in passing so perhaps that counts even if I don't often get it down on paper.

May I also say that this is a spiffing good coffee morning topic.

ps I bet American tea is better than French tea.

KAREN said...

Great topic :o) My blog is good practise and writing short stories is too. I read avidly, as a writer as well as for pleasure, and that helps with understanding structure and pacing, but mostly I just try and write something every day. I can feel my writing muscle getting stronger!

Lane said...

Excellent post KeVin. Thank you.

I fill notebooks with observations and snippets although I rarely read back through them. But as you say - that's not the point. The point is just to write, isn't it? I also listen to people being interviewed on the radio and write descriptions of how I imagine them to be. I suppose most of my writing practice is character driven and I need to find ways to flex 'plot' muscles.

The classes you attended sound extremely good KeVin although I know I would try to hide from the virginity/erotic one in a horribly British way:-)

Thank you too Cally and Kevin for the sidebar links. Fantastic.

Hope everyone has a good writing week.

ChrisH said...

Sorry to come so late to this. Great post, Kevin. Like you, but largely because of my OU course, I keep a writer's notebook. I felt quite self-conscious about it at first, but just getting into the habit of writing any old random thoughts has been both useful in terms of practise and as a resource.