Thursday 23 June 2011

Writers, Give Yourselves a Break!

A couple of weeks ago I spent a fantastic weekend holed up in an ancient cottage in the Yorkshire Dales. My companions were five other writers - talented, funny, warm and thoroughly good company, every last one of 'em.

Our mission was simple: write stuff, critique stuff, gorge ourselves on cake and excellent home cooking, wash it all down with lashings and lashings of wine, and then launch into a nightly no-holds-barred, to-the-death "Articulate" grudge match.

It was great fun, and I got a lot out of it in terms of finding proper focus for my writing. The pieces I submitted for critiquing were old, and in some ways I felt I was doing both them and myself a disservice by not offering up something a bit fresher. The problem is that with very small chunks of free time available, I have struggled to produce much in recent weeks (if not months), so I've been digging up old stuff to edit and buff up - in the hope that it will at least keep whatever part of my brain generates fiction ticking over for the time being. Getting together with fellow writers has reminded me that we all have our obstacles in the way of sitting down and bashing out words, and that the only person who can do anything about it is me.

I drove back home with a much more determined head on, and I have so far written a couple of new, short pieces that I'm pleased with. So, if your writing could do with a boost, and you know of a few like-minded individuals, then round them up and get yourselves off to somewhere remote. You won't regret it. Unless they turn out to be axe murderers. You should probably check that before sending out the invites, actually.

The thing that really struck me during the critiquing sessions was how stupidly self-deprecating we all were about our work, almost apologising as we handed our stories around for what an appalling burden the others were about to receive. Which was nonsense, because - elbowing group modesty aside for a moment - we're actually reasonably good at what we do. Between the six of us we've got somewhere around 100 stories in print or online, we've notched up placings in highly regarded competitions, and have won hundreds of pounds in competitions. So we can't actually be as crap as we tend to think we are.

I've noticed a kind of contradiction in the world of writing - at least in the realm of online forums and writing classes - in that those who regard themselves as good writers, who feel they have learnt all they need and are simply waiting for the world to wake up and acknowledge their genius ... are, almost without exception, unspeakably awful. On the other hand, those who agonise over their words, who are never satisfied with what they've done, who are embarrassed by the gulf between what they wanted to say and the words they've managed to get down onto the page, are usually pretty good, or at least well on their way there.

It's good to question, to challenge your own work, and to strive for better. But that can be at the expense of looking back once in a while and thinking, "Yeah, actually, I can do this. I'm better than I was yesterday, not as good as I'll be tomorrow. I'm not perfect, but I can write."

Take pride in your achievements, but see them as stepping stones to where you want to be, not badges of honour to wave in people's faces. The inevitable rejections and those stories that sink without trace in competitions are steps on the journey, too. That's all, they're not a judgement on you as a writer or a person. So keep moving and don't beat yourself up about them.

In short, writers, give yourself a break.

Wednesday 8 June 2011

Liquid Prose

Most weeks, I go to a writing group in Leamington Spa. Usually it's more of a reading and critiquing group, but once in a while we kick things off with a spot of writing. Yesterday was one such occasion. Our task was to spend ten minutes writing about water. Yep - normal, boring, colourless, odourless water.

I'm usually quite resistant to this kind of thing, the whole "free writing" idea of exploring a topic as you go often feels unnecessary. I'd much rather spend the time writing up one of the many ideas that seem to form a permanent traffic jam of stories in my head. But, this time, after getting over the initial hurdle of trying to describe something you can barely see, I found myself getting quite into it.

It was interesting to see how different members of the group approached this. Some came up with lists of words that evoked the taste or feel of water, some wrote fragments of prose that were quite poetic, others described it in terms of pouring out a glass and drinking it. There were a few mentions of the relief brought by taking a long, cool sip on a hot day.

I'm not quite sure how I'd describe my take on it. I think I aimed to give a sense of the water as an entity in its own right, to set it in motion and try to give it a sense of personality. I was quite pleased with the way it turned out, and so - as I can't think of anything else to do with it - I thought I'd post it here.


The liquid diamond fills a glass, a bath, a wellington boot, rushing to steal the shape of anything bold enough to contain it. Light bounces off it, bends through it, rides its surface in an ever-changing dance of glittering fragments.

Hold it up, tip it out, let it fall in thick molten strings. Watch its joyous reunion with itself, see it kick up an fleeting crown to mark the occasion.
Take a sip of this fishes’ tipple; chase its cold surge across your tongue. Taste a speck of a distant, peaty field, a grain of a chalk cliff you’ve never seen, a tang of an ancient clay pipe. Swallow its past as a pond, as a sea, as a gentle drifting cloud. Take your place in its eternal cycle.