Don’t get it right, get it written

I’ve been thinking a lot about editing these days: the delights, the fears, and the revelations. For every hundred words I write it seems that about seventy eventually get burned. Multiply that by ten and for every thousand words, seven hundred will get lost along the way. By that calculation to write a one hundred thousand word novel it will be the pick of three hundred thousand words. Or for a forty thousand word dissertation, a sizeable one hundred and twenty words. While the maths may be a bit skewed what’s evident is that the first draft, however rough, is a necessary precursor. The first draft informs the second which informs the third by which point some characters are only just waking up.

In the same way a floral arrangement starts with a few stems, one may jot down an inspired line of words. The first stems may be striking or beautiful and others will be worked in around them. As other stems are introduced and a bit of greenery added, the possibilities grow and very soon the look of the whole is changing. Similarly, a first draft will introduce characters and scenes whose presence is not yet maximised. They stick out, hinting, suggestive, inviting more attention. In the next draft if one dwells there a little longer, options and possibilities will begin to open up. That striking first line may even appear a little withered around the edges. Parting company is inevitable and so lamentable that another temporary resting place may have to be found for it.

Whether one plans ahead or goes with the flow, as the words weave into lines and scenes take shape, possibilities emerge and choices arise. And therein lies the alluring predicament of editing. Pruning the first growth will strengthen the next and give way for fresh buds and new stems. So be not afraid of editing that rough edged first draft. It may involve a detour down some by-road that proves interesting if not exciting enough to inspire a trot and a flurry of enthusiasm for the new landscape and its wild flowers. One may end up lost but with a few friendly proffered directions who knows where it may lead. How different the destination may be. Hence there’s no need to get it perfect first time. As James Thurber said: ‘Don’t get it right, get it written.’



Back on 1 April I shared a technique for managing my expectations to achieve the requisite number of lengths in my daily swim routine. I used the title ‘Subbuteo Swimming’ for my blog post that day. If readers were expecting some hilarious April Fool Day’s story about plastic footballers, they were disappointed. Sometimes though, our expectations aren’t met. Frequently this is disappointing, rarely is it exciting. Amongst the one-line top tips I’ve collected over the last few years one of my favourites is to try and make the next word as unexpected as possible. During an undergrad seminar we examined the literal, as opposed to the figurative. We also rewrote a number of similes. It’s easy. Think of any simile, there’s a fair chance it’s a cliché too. So, rewrite it, think about it for a while and there’s a myriad of options available. Don’t tell me something’s as cheap as chips, tell me it’s as cheap as the unbranded children’s building blocks in TKmaxx.

Digressed already, sorry! Too much Victor Hugo. Expectations. During the restructuring of my life I have spent a huge number of hours considering my expectations. Realigning them for greater efficiency. Never in my wildest dreams… whoops, never in my most outrageous hopes did I expect to be earning money from writing. And yet, here I am now and things are moving forward nicely. I enjoy the writing; I’m loving the challenge of writing a story over the length of a novel, of putting words together to make poetry, of trying to help others to work with their inhibitions and put pen to paper. Over the past month I’ve become involved with three different writing groups, have progressed a venture to teach in Kingston library, and am writing and proof-reading board games’ rules.

Relationships too tend be built around expectations. And how we communicate those of course. I feel sure that more open and honest talking would sort out so much of modern life friction. It’s about getting yourself across simply, and then listening. Don’t finish your sentence and start formulating the next one. Listen. I think I’m a pretty good listener, my problem is thinking I don’t have anything valid to say back. Get rid of that expectation and perhaps, who knows? I suppose that ties in with treating others, as you would like to be treated.

In the first draft of my second novel I didn’t really have the main character plotted out. After a couple of chapters I found him doing and saying things I would never have expected him too. He took on a life of his own and it became relatively straight forward to describe where he was, what he was up to, as if I was writing his biography almost. I loosened my expectations, I gave him freedom and he rewarded me.

Neil Horabin



The Short Story

The short story shapes itself like a painting. There are layers of meaning, but we only have to look at the whole for the briefest of moments to understand all it has urgently to tell us.

The short story is a form that focuses itself around a single question or a moment of crisis. The very best examples force us to think differently and bring us to a point of no return in one reading, before setting us free, changed. They reach to the reader’s emotional centre. In this respect, they can be more like poetry than the novel. Maybe this is why some short story writers turn to poetry late in their writing lives.

This is what I know:

The best short stories start with an idea: The Swimmer by John Cheever has a middle aged man swim across the pools of his suburban landscape all the way back to his home. What happens on the way, the people he stops to speak to, the exhaustion he encounters, and his reaction when he finally gets to his end point, make the story.

They unravel the core of a character: Raymond Carver’s Cathedral has a blind man visit a sighted narrator and his wife. The reader watches the transformation of the sighted narrator through the course of one evening.

They bring us close to regret for lives lived badly or unlived: William Trevor’s A Day traces the life of an unhappy marriage, flipping back in time, but hinged in the ordinary tragic detail of the everyday.

They make us walk a little more carefully for the rest of the day: James Salter’s Last Night tells a story about three characters fated to blunder their chances. When morning comes, they face each other’s disappointments.

They make us breathe: Katherine Mansfield’s The Garden Party is filled with life. It is near as perfect as a story can be.

They defy form: The short story writer Alice Munro, when asked in The Atlantic Magazine if she’d ever consider writing a novel, said:

“I still come up with ideas for novels. And I even start novels. But something happens to them. They break up. I look at what I really want to do with the material, and it never turns out to be a novel.”

Her story Walker Brothers Cowboy could (unusually) be a novel, one thinks, stretched out from its current form, intent upon the blur of the real world and the surreal cosmos as it seems. But it isn’t a novel. It is a story centred on a young girl moving through the world with her father who is a travelling salesman. Her moment of revelation comes when she realises that her father has a life beyond the family, away from her.

Lastly, the best short stories will not disappoint: Roberto Bolano’s Mexican Manifesto. The work of a master.

Barbara Cotter

What is Style?

A friend asked me what style means in a literary sense, and can it be good or bad?
Style is the particular way that something is presented. Can we like or dislike a person’s style? Can a reader dismiss a particular literary style and call it ‘bad’? If effort and care has gone into the creation, surely this is not possible. However we can dislike a style, but often that dislike is based on misunderstanding. It is similar to taste which the O.E.D defines as ‘the ability to pick out what is of good quality’. But what is good quality writing? For instance one person’s sense of what is ‘good taste’ is another’s nightmare. Some styles, for example Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, can seem impossible and yet with time can become illuminating.

What makes a style in a literary context is perhaps a more pertinent question. Style can be seen on a superficial level as formed by choices of structure, grammar and P.O.V. At the moment there is a fashion for writing in the present tense – especially in historical fiction. Or a writer can present work in a reflective manner, commenting on the subtle and tiny nuances of life. A writer may have a descriptive or poetic style. Another may write in simple direct sentences and present plot through terse, exacting dialogue. Although these perhaps come under literary devices they also help shape individual style.

Style can be difficult to decipher. It is apparent when you read it – but what makes it particular to the writer is not obvious. In essence, I suppose, style is the way that the writer chooses to tell a story. Genre can determine a choice of style as does the voice of the narrator. Is the voice in dialect? Judgemental? Omniscient?
A novel in first person lends itself to a more personal, often colloquial style – but that ventures into a discussion on voice.
Voice is intrinsic to the success of a novel – or is that success due to the style of the voice? The more I consider it, the more elusive style becomes. Like glamour or taste it is difficult to define and is many things to many people. Liking or disliking a style has much to do with our own expectations of a novel and what we are used to. But this can change over time in the same way that personal taste may change.

Perhaps fashion is the deciding factor, and those novels that last in popularity are akin to a trilby or Burberry coat. How we decorate our homes comes to much the same thing; the feel of the interior is created by our choice of emphasis on colour, furniture, fabrics and arrangement. And if we don’t care about any of these things we have an uncomfortable, unwelcoming home – or a story badly told and one difficult to understand.

Beatrice Parvin

Five things I learnt at the 9th Geneva Writers’ Conference

I love writers’ conferences; they help take the edge off the loneliness of writing. This year I have a book on its way to the publishers, a short story in the Offshoots anthology and I have begun my MA/MFA in Creative Writing at Kingston University. I was interested to see how these developments in my writing life would affect my participation in the 9th Geneva Writers’ Conference held in February.

These are my five discoveries:

1. Don’t publicize your book too soon
“I’m a communications professional and psychologist and I have a contract for my self-help book, Holding out for a Hero, Five Steps to Marriage over 40. I wanted to know whether to publicize the book before it comes out”, I asked the social media panel. “No” they replied, “Readers will be confused as to whether it is out or not, wait till you have a publication date”. Another panellist thought it was a lovely problem to have: readers who can’t wait to read my book.

2. Network
My book is finished bar final editing but I wanted a fresh perspective before I finally let it go. In particular I wanted to be sure that its contents are not potentially embarrassing. With so many talented writers I found just the person to read it from her chalet in the mountains.

3. Meet your publisher
I had signed with John Hunt Publishing’s Bedroom Books imprint in September. Contact takes place through a forum and data base rather than personally so it was a plus to meet John Hunt in person. He was reassuring but honest about what lies ahead.

4. Don’t worry about lunch
My freshly made cream cheese on wholemeal lay forgotten on the kitchen table. I wasn’t hungry till I bumped into Bob. He had brought a selection of ham and peanut butter sandwiches for his own lunch. I’m a vegetarian and peanut butter sandwiches are my favourite. Bob’s generosity proved that even if you come unprepared the Conference will provide.

5. Explore obsession
Henry Sutton’s workshop focussed on the intricacies of plot, motivation and desire – ‘whydunit’ rather than ‘whodunit’. The author of My Criminal World showed me that if my heroine is really looking for a partner she needs to get out there, not wait for fate to throw someone her way.

Lesley Lawson Botez

The Blog is back!

Hello! We are happy to be back and running again.

The Creative Writing MFA at Kingston University has been running now for several years. The two-year Fine Art programme was originally spearheaded by Scott Bradfield. We were very sorry to see Scott leave last year but relieved to learn that the mantle has been taken over by Paul Perry.

Karen Gillece und Paul Perry (Karen Perry) Irland

Paul Perry is the author and editor of a number of critically acclaimed books including The Drowning of the Saints, Goldsmith’s Ghost, The Orchid Keeper, and The Last Falcon and Small Ordinance, The Dedalus Press, 2010. Paul is also Curator for the largest and longest running international poetry festival in Ireland, dlr Poety Now.

This is going to be a great year for Paul not least because of the launch of his new book The Innocent Sleep. The novel, a psychological thriller, has been co-written with Dublin based author Karen Gillece. The Innocent Sleep was released on 18 February under the pen name Karen Perry. It has been commended by reviewers for its captivating and lyrical style of writing.

There is also a low residency MFA cohort led by Siobhan Campbell. It’s a distance learning option and attracts students from around the world. So this year we are a group of over twenty students, all at different junctions on the joyful, undulating, cross-country literary pathway. Over the coming months we hope to hear the sounds of these new voices and share some of our reflections along the way.

Your 2014 editors,

Maria & Carol


Workshopping the Truth

Robert McKee said that ‘Storytelling is the creative demonstration of Truth’. He is not the first wise man to suggest that there is a worth in truth, an emotional price that tends to move us, force us to feel something, whether pleasant or unpleasant. In the case of true works of art, perhaps the point is complete if we are moved to feel anything at all.

And so as I try to amass a wardrobe of writing essentials and versatile accessories I am mindful of the hangers on which I display them. The poet Auden spoke of truth telling that should ‘disenchant and disintoxicate’. It sounds daring and brave and yet doable in the save haven of one’s own privacy. When the words are free to confess, converse, and contrive a truth possessed only by me.

When the same level of truth is to be exposed in a workshop forum, then a whole new dimension descends; an overcoat of self-consciousness weighs in. The writing wants to wear a different outfit, something more conservative, acceptable to the occasion and altogether less daring. There is a risk of turning up in the same pitiful strait-jacket time and time again. Maybe nobody notices.  In any case we alone are the best judges of the truths we own.

In whatever we write, we give something away and so in a workshop arena we always expose ourselves to some degree. It’s rarely comfortable and often regrettable. But maybe the key is to acknowledge the niggling honesty of our own instincts and tune into the feedback that echoes those doubts. And so learn that that’s where to focus the re-edit energy and prod ourselves a bit closer to the truths we aspire to expose.

Back to Basics

DSCF3179One of the good things about moving into the MFA, a student from the previous year said, is that you’re going to have more ‘one-to–ones’ and much more time to write. Great! What could be better than that? While the MA is full of – for credit- wonderfully taught master classes, and lots of assignments to hand in every week, we are told we will be freer on the MFA. Now, hold on. Is that really a good thing? Having all the time in the world doesn’t necessarily mean that we, even those of us who are starting to think of ourselves as writers, will sit down and write. And that is, because only real, committed writers, regardless of whether they attend creative courses or not, understand the most important principle of the craft: to sit down and write.

As we make progress through our stories, we sometimes – or very often – think that now that the plot is clear, that the narrative is flowing in an effortless way and we have –finally!- become better at spotting shifts in point of view, and so on, the story will carry itself forward, with our occasional input. Because there’s never an abundance of time to write. Yes, we all have jobs, outside home, or from home, or kids, or kids and dogs, or simply other tasks, challenges or passions to look after. And we think that our writing is all well when, really, it isn’t.

That is why it came as a surprise – although really no surprise there- when our course director sent us an email before the beginning of the year asking us to read “Becoming a Writer”, the classic by Dorothea Brande. The first reaction? Are we, effectively, back to basics? Wait, is this not a book that we all read before we even considered enrolling in the creative writing postgraduate course? We are way past that. Really? Are we?

But if we are writers only three words will do: constancy, discipline and backbone.

Constancy:After (re) reading the book many among us started to tell how difficult (but how productive) it felt to set a strict time each day to write, and do nothing more than write during a set period of time each day, additional to what D.B calls ‘early morning writing’.

Discipline:‘Old habits are strong and jealous’, D.B also reminds us. How true!

Backbone: Not Just D.B. but every real writer knows that writing is not easy. Even the physical act of writing is not easy. Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said that writing ‘is a work of ass’ (es un trabajo de culo.) Yes, of sitting, alone, for hours. Even if surrounded by people (like in a cafe, library) you’re still alone, and you’re still sitting on your backside. Even when you’re eavesdropping into other’s people’s conversations, if you’re writing, you’re not going to jump in and join them- though nothing is impossible, the temptation is there, isn’t it? But you would stop writing. And while making that choice of sticking to writing, we are making a choice of loneliness, a selfish one, perhaps, a solitary one. We need to have backbone.

So here we are, more adept at plotting, at managing back story, still trying to control p.o.v, but what we really, really need to master first, is to sit down and write.

Diagrams by Alison Gibb

A word from MFA alumna and Kingston Writing School Emerging Writer in Residence, Alison Gibb:

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

Silent Diagrams Cover

I am pleased to inform you that my latest work, Silent Diagrams, a pamphlet collection of poetry and drawings, has recently been published by Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.

Silent Diagrams is a series of pencil drawing over a single poem. The drawings document my process of visualizing poetic activity to create diagrams, which illustrate and generates spaces for live performance.  The diagrams were originated during the development of Thus in the crossing, a poetic dance performance in collaboration with choreographer, Elaine Thomas.

Thus in the crossing was recently performed at E:Poetry 2013 & at the Practice, Process and Paradox Conference 2013 at Roehampton University.

For further info on Silent Diagrams please visit Knives, Forks and Spoons Press.


If you’re an MFA student or alumus/a keep us updated on your success!

Jumping the Shark: Knowing When to Say ‘The End’

“I loved Grey’s Anatomy until I realised I hate it.”

A friend of mine and I were discussing our favourite television programmes recently when she came out with that little gem. Then we were off on a rant about how shows can start so well, be so compelling and then one evening as you settle into the couch you realise that you don’t even like your favourite programme anymore.

  • Grey’s Anatomy went from being a comedy/drama about a young woman struggling to both fulfill and reject her familial legacy to a mess of explosions, mass shootings, plane crashes, natural disasters and anything else that could hike up drama to obscure the lack of plot.
  • 24 went from the story of a day in the life of a counterintelligence agent pushing the boundaries to stop a terrorist attack to the same thing, over and over and over again.
  • The Inbetweeners went from the coming of age story of four boys at school to…oh, wait. That’s exactly what it was.

People often lament that US television shows go on for too long and fizzle out whereas UK programmes ‘leave the viewers wanting more.’ But do we actually want more? I think not.

We may feel we want more, because Tuesday nights just won’t be the same without the characters we have come to love. Because we crave more of the laughs or the tears or the shocks the writers have delivered. But what we really love is the story. And it’s important to know when a story is over.

In Grey’s Anatomy, the story is: will the aspiring surgeon succeed or will she fall prey to her inner demons? She’s succeeded. She’s a surgeon, she’s got the guy, they’ve built the house of their dreams, she’s triumphed over difficulties in getting pregnant, for goodness sakes, she even owns the hospital now. The answer is there. The story is over. A long time over.

24 was a great premise: one day, 24 hours and the problem that one character faces in that time. Except then they did it again and again, year after year with the same protagonist and the same problem. That’s not a story, there is no character development when the protagonist just repeats the same actions every season. Plus, it’s just ridiculous that one character would single-handedly need to resolve that many terrorist attacks, and all in exactly 24 hours.

And, now, we come to hailed success stories like The Inbetweeners and How I Met Your Mother. Why do these shows work? Because they have limited scope. There is a point when they end. The inbetweener boys finish school and Ted, presumably meets his kids’ mother.

All this to say that it is time for me to jump the shark. It has been a great year for me on No Dead White Men. I have enjoyed working with all the tutors, with our outgoing MFA director, Scott Bradfield, and my talented and dedicated cohort colleagues who took time out to write fantastic articles all year. They have written about varied topics from translation to procrastination, from teaching to reading and everything in between.

As we move on and a new cohort steps in, we think about beginning new scenes, new projects and bringing the old ones to a close. Because those endings are so very important and the ending is the hardest part to write because, in many ways, it defines the whole story.

So we’re going to end simply, with a thank you for reading and a hope that we haven’t gone on quite long enough to make you hate us.

Don’t forget to keep visiting No Dead White Men as it is taken over by the 2013/2014 MFA cohort and they tell their own, new story. I am sure they will be fantastic and have lots of interesting thoughts to share.

Thank you all for your loyal readership and support.

Your faithful 2012/2013 Editor,

Sinéad Keegan

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