Tag Archives: Fiction writing

Writing Fiction: In Praise of Writers’ Groups

I have a friend who was convinced that there was no point in showing his writing to anyone other than an agent/publisher, and that was only in order to get it in print.  A mutual friend was allowed to read a piece he had written and said subsequently, ‘He’s not good at taking feedback is he?’

At this point, given the title of this post, I should be able to say that he never got anywhere.  Instead of which he has had a book published and had at least two plays on the radio.

Some people are naturally introverted.  I don’t think Jane Austen was in a writers’ group – by one account, she used to hide her writing under her embroidery if anyone came into the room.  Charles Dickens, on the other hand, was always reading his stuff out to people (there is a famous sketch of him reading one of his Christmas stories out to his friends).

I spend a lot of time writing on my own, but I really like getting feedback from the two writers’ groups I attend.  Sometimes they just see things I can’t.

My general rule is that if only one person in the group makes a particular observation then it is up to me to decide whether or not to go with it.  If everyone is saying the same thing, it’s probably time to listen.  I showed my synopsis to a couple of writer-friends recently, and both of them had written ‘why?’ in various places in the plot, and both agreed that it was thin.  It led to the breakthrough that I experienced on retreat (see ‘Meditation 2’).

The best sort of feedback for me is, ‘This does work’ or, ‘This doesn’t work’.  In this way I get a general idea of how it is coming across and it is left to me to come up with a solution.  The sort that isn’t so good is the, ‘What you should do is…’  Usually because they are starting to write their own novel out of it.  Having said that, posed as a question, ‘Have you thought of…’ can be helpful.

The first synopsis I ever wrote was roundly rejected by my novel writing class.  Except for one thing, a station attendant based on Clint Eastwood’s Man-with-No-Name.  A Western character in the midst of a modern-day setting.  I took the synopsis to another friend, who agreed with the class, right down to the Western character.  And then she said, ‘Have you ever thought of making the whole thing like that?’  And that’s what it ended up as: a modern-day setting and all the characters unknowingly playing the parts of the usual Western stereotypes.  Perhaps not the best thing I’ve ever written, but great fun to write.

Writing Fiction: Meditation

I have returned from a 14-day meditation retreat with a great new plot idea for my novel.  Happy me.  The thing is (and I can see a few people with their hands up at the back) that’s not really what these things are supposed to be about.  If anything they are to develop greater concentration, or to generate loving kindness for one’s fellow human beings.  Not to come up with a plot twist for your hope-to-be-bestseller.

The trouble is that, as I mentioned in ‘Writing Fiction: Altered States’, at a previous retreat I was given a plot development that transformed my second novel.  So, of course, I went this time – having been told that the synopsis for my third novel was thin on plot – hoping that it would happen again.  And it did.  A piece of information that solves several other plot problems and gives the novel greater focus, momentum and depth.

Of course, this is no guarantee of the quality of the final product.  Nor, is it a suggestion for a new fix-it-quick method.  I was meditating for three years, including a daily sit and regular retreats, before any significant writing idea came to me.  And I wasn’t even looking for it.  But it’s an interesting phenomenon nonetheless.

It’s not just me.  I’ve spoken to several other writers, musicians, a choreographer, and an artist, who have all had similar experiences.  There is a German monk called Lama Govinda who says, ‘Art and meditation are creative states of the human mind.  Both are nourished from the same source.’

On this retreat I had a chance to observe the process as it happened.

The first week was mixed.  I was aware of my desire to get an idea, while at the same time conscious that it was not really the point of the retreat.  After about four days I entered a period when a large number came to me, but though each promised to be the one, they were generally no more than an extension of the sort of thoughts I’d had before I’d gone away.  And then it all went silent, as if I’d passed through some asteroid belt.

In the second week we went into actual silence, and about eight days into the retreat I had a personal insight into my own thoughts and behaviour.  So strong, in fact, that I was aware of a physical sensation of almost being laid out.  At the end of it, it occurred to me to think about the novel.  It was like seeing it from a different vantage point, and the new plot development occurred to me

The experience was a little like being presented with the solution to that nine-dot puzzle.  ‘Thinking outside the box’ is too thin a cliché, it was more like an Aha! moment.  I’ve been writing it up since I got back and it really does have a powerful effect on the whole story.  Hoorah!

But let’s take a look at this from the meditation point of view.  During that ‘asteroid belt’ period, I was bombarded with ideas, each one promising to be the one.  Each one took me further away from the focus of meditation.  Some people say that you should write the idea down and then it will go away.  Whereas for me, when I did, it was as if the brain was saying, ‘Oh, so you’re listening are you?’  and went a bit mental.  In the second week when I was presented with the real deal, I actually didn’t write it down for about two days, because it felt as if it needed to marinade.  And then, when it became a burden, I wrote it down, and I got nothing else.

My meditation advisor told me all of this was mental sensory desire.  The ego, threatened with, at best boredom, at worst extinction, starts to create projects to bolster itself.  The advice is to acknowledge the desire and keep returning to the object of meditation.  Which is fine when it is easily recalled, but sometimes there is a particular wording.  For example, it occurred to me during one of the meals that one of the things I hate is people who chew in a spritely way (yeh, I was a real angel).  Now if I had waited to the end of the retreat to write it down it would have subtly changed eg people who chew in a vigorous way.  Not the same.

So, where do I stand?  In a way, it’s a paradox.  I may want creative ideas but in searching for them I am taking myself away from the object of meditation and thus the kind of deeper experience that may result in those very ideas.  To be honest, I’ll probably continue doing what I have done to date.  But both writing and meditation are important to me, so I suspect the debate will continue.  Usually in my head, and when I’m supposed to be concentrating on the breath.

Character: ‘Try writing fiction…’

When I was a teenager my father wrote a novel in which he included pen portraits of us. I was depicted as an American kid who said, ‘Hi!’ a lot. A few years later my sister wrote a story which included a character called Paul, who was strangely similar to me. I said to her, ‘Try writing fiction.’ But since starting to write for myself this particular dog has come back to bite me in the bum. I notice in a couple of the posts that I have said that I am writing a character based on someone I once knew, and later that I could not just take someone I had met in real life and put them in a story. So what is the truth? I don’t know. And I think that’s one of the reasons I’m struggling with that particular character. The more real she seems the less she behaves like a real character; the further away I take her, the more she loses vitality. Jack Rosenthal said that as soon as you put too much fact in a story it starts to spiral downwards; but if you can put it at one remove then in spirals upwards. Certainly, in most of the characters I have written I recognise where they have come from, but they are not 100% portraits.