Guest Post: Emma Rea on The Trellis and the Rose

I pleased to welcome children’s author Emma Rea as my guest this month, with her thoughts on writing rules and breaking them, in particular that vexed issue of showing versus telling.

When I was at school, I had a wonderful English teacher (who herself was taught by CS Lewis) and she said several things that stayed with me. One of them was her explanation of the trellis and the rose.

She was teaching us Shakespearean sonnets, and she showed us the form: the three quatrains rhyming abab, cdcd, efef, followed by a couplet, rhyming gg. She explained the iambic pentameter. We all knew the rules.

Then she started telling us how Shakespeare broke the rules. Using half-rhymes, caesura, enjambement. We grew confused.

And she explained that in all writing, there is both form – the trellis to which the writing must cling – and the author’s insight and imagination – the rose. Without a trellis, the rose will flop. But if it follows the trellis rigidly, left, right, left, right, there will be no life in the writing at all.

I write children’s fiction, not sonnets, but her words still ring usefully in my head. I’m always trying to work out what form, or ‘rules’, work in writing and which rules can be bent.

And one rule I’m wary of is ‘show don’t tell’. We’re always told this, and of course it’s important, but a confident writer will know when to break it, and simply tell the reader certain things. This confidence is enormously appealing. Dickens’ first sentence of Bleak House is ‘London.’ A later paragraph starts ‘Fog everywhere.’ He goes on to show us, but he hasn’t been afraid of telling us, too. And we immediately get that delicious feeling that we’re in the safe hands of a writer who knows exactly what they’re doing.

I think this tension between telling and showing is pleasurable for the reader. They want to know some things – just as you want to know the rules before you start playing a board game – but they also want intrigue and nuance, so their curiosity is aroused and they can start trying to work things out for themselves. You have to have on the one hand, absolute clarity, and on the other, obfuscation, and the two hands have to be clasped, fingers intertwined, so that the text is both strongly rooted and yet open to interpretation.

Over ten years of writing and writing groups, I’m getting better at spotting in my own work which bits need clarity, or telling, and which don’t. I love checking out first chapters to see how authors find a balance between the two, and I like experimenting with telling to see what works.

I’ll leave you with an opening line which makes me feel grounded and safe, and yet curious. We’re given the location, the season and the time of day – and a springboard into the story.

‘It was an ordinary spring day in Istanbul, a long and leaden afternoon like so many others, when she discovered, with a hollowness in her stomach, that she was capable of killing someone.’ Elif Shafak, Three Daughters of Eve

Emma Rea is an author, reviewer and proof reader. She is the author of MG novels Top Dog (Gomer 2014) which was shortlisted for the North Somerset Teachers’ Book Award and My Name is River, published this June by Firefly Press, and listed as Sunday Times Children’s Book of the Week in July.

Emma Rea
My Name is River is available online through Waterstones or Amazon, and can be ordered through any bookshop, or through the Firefly Press website.

Guest post: Louise Tondeur with top tips and thoughts on writing in crazy times

When writer Louise Tondeur and I arranged to swap blog posts a couple of months ago we had no idea of the way the world was changing. 

Louise has added a preamble to the top tips she originally sent me and a caveat to one of her ‘don’ts’, to take account of the times in which we now find ourselves. I’m grateful to her for sharing this. 

 

How to write

You don’t need me to tell you that these are crazy times. Some people have more time to devote to writing right now, others have much less time or a much higher mental load and therefore less thinking space. My writing time has been cut in half, for instance, and I haven’t been able to think about it at all over the last week, but I’m extremely fortunate that my family are currently well and I do get some writing time as my wife and I can share the home-schooling. We’re all thinking about key workers at the moment and people are worried about loved ones, of course. So is now a good time to be writing at all? There are at least three answers to that. Firstly people need books, stories, poetry and screenplays more than ever right now. Secondly, writing can be a great way to express how you’re feeling about what’s going on. For example, by doing Julia Cameron’s morning pages. https://juliacameronlive.com/basic-tools/morning-pages/ Thirdly, if you don’t have time to write during the current crisis, be kind to yourself. You don’t need to add ‘worry about not writing’ to your metal load.

10 top tips

  1. Turn up regularly – make a commitment and schedule it. Why? Because the only real way you learn to write is by doing it. To me, ‘turning up’ includes making lists, simply noticing things, reading, morning pages, and scribbling down ideas or snatches of dialogue.
  2. Read, watch, listen – make time for it, especially in the genre you want to write in. Why? Nobody would try to design a chair without ever sitting down. It’s the same with writing. It’s possible you have more time for this at the moment, possibly not. My wife and I have been trying to watch silly funny programmes to take our mind off the crisis for half an hour or so. This is perfect for me as I would love to write for TV. I am absolutely considering this as ‘research’!
  3. Notice the world around you – use mindfulness to help you write. Why? Because that way you ‘make things new’ for your readers. I think this is one technique we can all practise while the world is going topsy-turvy. I have rediscovered Tara Brach’s meditations over the last few days, which has been incredibly helpful, but even without meditations, you could try to pause for five minutes to notice a plant outside or the things in the room around you. This is a powerful life skill anyway and when you write you can use these observations to make your work more authentic.
  4. Use all of the senses available to you – don’t always default to the visual. Why? Because you’re much more likely to go deeper – and therefore write something more touching or unusual. Again, even if you are unable to find time to write at the moment, use all of your senses when you’re observing the world around you, because that’s going to help you when you sit down to write.
  5. Get in touch with the small detail – don’t simply look at a tree, look at the veins on a leaf. Why? Because, to borrow Susan Sontag’s words, writers are ‘observers of the world’. This is probably my favourite tip of all and you don’t have to be able to go out into the world to do it.
  6. Put yourself in the way of inspiration – theatre, poetry readings, art galleries, and museums. Julia Cameron calls this technique ‘filling the well.’ You can’t do this in person at the moment of course but there are many ways to do it virtually. One good thing about this crisis is the way in which people have pooled resources so these virtual worlds are more accessible than ever. (Plus, one thing that has helped me a lot over the last few weeks is imagining the things I’ll do and the places I’ll go when the danger is over!) Why? Because there are no lightning bolts of inspiration – you’ve got to find it. Waiting around for inspiration is a big mistake.
  7. A combination of 1 – 6: be open to life. Get in the way of the universe. Say ‘yes’. Try new things. Why? See the answers to ‘why?’ under 1 – 6!
  8. Move. Dance, walk, swim, do yoga. Whatever it is, get outside your own head. Why? Because it gives the creative mind a chance to mull over whatever you’re writing and because moving gives us a new (and usually better) perspective on the world. As before, most of these things aren’t possible at the moment outside of the home but you can find dance and yoga classes (for example) on YouTube.
  9. Get to know other writers – join a writers’ group or start one, and check out your local writing centre’s website. Why? For motivation and accountability and for tacit knowledge about your local writing scene. My writing group is using Zoom to stay in touch. It’s easy to use once it’s up and running and a good way to chat to several people virtually.
  10. Try submitting something – or get hold of an opportunity from a writing magazine or online and work to the word count and deadline even if you don’t ultimately send it in. Why? Understanding the process of submission makes it a whole lot less scary and having a practice go makes it easier when you come to do it ‘for real’.

5 things NOT to do:

  1. Don’t compare yourself to other writers. We tend only to hear about successes, which warps the picture. Behind every success story you’ll find multiple ‘failures’ that were simply stepping stones.
  2. Don’t read / talk / think about writing without actually doing it. See tip number one above!
  3. Don’t give up after facing hurdles (for some people this means ‘the middle’ of whatever they are writing!). See these as opportunities to look for a solution. Believe me, this is where the fun starts.
  4. Don’t write only one draft. Real writing is redrafting – multiple times.
  5. Don’t write one thing. It’s easy to get fixated on ‘the Novel’ – I know that from experience. Have a go at writing a short story or a monologue or a poem. Give yourself a break from your main project.

I’m doing Sophie Hannah’s Dream Author coaching programme at the moment and she says that we should definitely compare ourselves to other writers – in detail not simply on social media – because then we will see how their writing lives have progressed, and understand the successes and challenges that got them to where they are. I’m adding that as a caveat to ‘don’t’ number 1, because if you do some detailed research it can be fascinating to compare yourself to other writers!

 

Louise Tondeur is a novelist and short story writer. She originally trained as a drama teacher, and currently tutors on the OU’s Creative Writing MA. She blogs at: http://www.louisetondeur.co.uk/blog and http://www.smallstepsguide.co.uk You can find her on Twitter here: @louisetondeur and on Facebook at: facebook.com/louisetondeurwriter

Author pic. Louise Tondeur
Louise Tondeur, credit Ana Bohane Photography

 

 

Dealing with uncertainty and anxiety

We all of us face this just now, writers as much as anyone else. How to deal with it? My small suggestions:

  • Bake breadSourdough. the cut and the rise
  • Walk the hillsWalking on the hills
  • Drink wineThe boys taste the local wine 2
  • And, finally, don’t give yourself any pressure to write anything. It can wait.

 

 

Coming next: Guest post with top does and don’ts for writers

Guest post: Sally Jenkins on Public Speaking for Writers

I invited author Sally Jenkins to share some of her tips on public speaking. Here’s her advice for anyone planning that nerve-wracking first author event: 

All writers, whether traditionally, self or unpublished, need to learn the skill of self-marketing. If the world doesn’t know you exist, it isn’t going to read your work. Social media is a great publicity tool but is impersonal and the posts are soon forgotten. Nothing beats getting away from the computer and talking to readers. Personal contact lives in the mind far longer than a tweet or a gif.

Author events are a great way of generating this personal contact and libraries are a good venue for authors new to addressing an audience. Most libraries are keen to increase their footfall and become community hubs rather than just book depositories, therefore they welcome author events.

Preparation is key to a successful author event and below are some points to help you in the construction of an attention-holding author talk:

  • Plan to speak for around 40 to 45 minutes, to be followed by questions from the audience. The whole event should last about an hour.
  • Divide the talk into ten minute chunks. Each chunk should focus on a different topic, such as the inspiration behind your book, the research needed along the way or your typical writing day. This regular change of subject will re-ignite the attention of the audience and give you, the speaker, a burst of energy.
  • Have a memorable opening. My current author talk is about writing a psychological thriller. I start by teaching the audience ‘how to make money out of murder’ and produce a selection of murder weapons as visual aids. Having grabbed their attention, I switch to writing-related topics.
  • Don’t read the talk from a script. Make bullet point notes and talk freely around each bullet point. This will enable you to make eye contact with the audience and build a good rapport.
  • Accept that a little bit of stage-fright is good. Adrenaline sharpens your performance. But don’t let it overwhelm you – focus on sharing your enthusiasm for books and writing with the audience.
  • Include a maximum of three readings from the book and make them short, two to three minutes is sufficient. Unless you are a trained actor, it’s difficult to hold audience attention when reading aloud. If you need glasses for small print, reproduce the extract on A4 paper in a large font. This will enable you to read without glasses and maintain better eye contact with the audience.
  • A few months before the event, join a Speakers’ or Toastmasters’ Club to practise speaking in front of an audience. Both organisations will provide constructive feedback on how you’re doing and enable you to gain experience.
  • Take some books to sell! Also useful are a cash float for giving change and some business cards in case anyone wants to book you to speak at their WI or other organisation.

Well done on holding your first author event! It’s OK to feel exhausted! Now, take some time to analyse how it went and then start planning the next one. Good luck and enjoy!

 

Sally Jenkins is an author and speaker. In 2018 she represented the Midlands in the National Speech Competition held by the Association of Speakers Clubs. Her book, Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners, is designed to hold the hand of the novice speaker. It contains information on constructing a talk, managing speaking engagements and creating speeches for special occasions.

Sally blogs about writing, reading and life at https://sally-jenkins.com/blog/

Follow her on Twitter https://twitter.com/sallyjenkinsuk and find her on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/SallyJenkinsAuthor/

Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners is available from Amazon: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Public-Speaking-Absolute-Beginners-Confidence/dp/1795575182/

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Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins. public speaking book cover

On vanity

I’ve got a new author photograph. You can see it on my About page. I had photos taken by a professional photographer.

Is that vanity? What, indeed, is vanity? ‘Inflated or excessive pride in one’s appearance’ – or indeed qualities, abilities or achievements – is the dictionary definition.

I think that as a writer it is no bad thing to have a pride in all those things. Nay, as a human having pride in oneself is not in itself a bad thing. I don’t think we should decry it . False modesty is, to my way of thinking, a way of actually calling attention to yourself.

So the key words are ‘excessive’ and ‘inflated’. I don’t think there anything excessive about having photographs taken by a professional, for professional purposes. And, let’s face it, as part of becoming a published writer – an author – is promotion, and for all that we are promoting our words, images help hugely with that.

A professional photographer’s job in taking portraits is to bring out the best of a person. I wanted an author pic which makes me look professional, but also approachable and friendly. I’m very happy with this one. All credit to Artist Photographer Toril Brancher.

 

 

Coming next: A guest post on public speaking tips for writers