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The Lewes Writer’s Group


I’m part of a writer’s group (offline, real flesh and blood stuff. I offered this to a dear friend. Tell me. Will it help her?

‘I have gone through ‘Away Days’ with great care’

I am fired up by a week of indulgent, experimental, binge writing. I feel better able to comment on those faced with the same struggle and discoveries they need to make . I am more enthused and confident about writing prose than ever before. I’ve had fun. I’ve written thousands of words, 8,000 one day, much of it crap. But this is good. It is part of the acceptable, mud-crushed path writers go down. I will write 2,000 word ‘sketches’ as a first draft, expecting to slip the leaves into the narrative later (or not). I will ‘let go’, go crazy to see if what tip taps onto the page is edible (or not).

From Naomi Eppel, ‘The Observation Deck’

Eliminate Words

‘Allow yourself to write garbage, to repeat yourself, to produce clichés. Let yourself create what Anne Lamott calls ‘shitty first drafts.’ Bad writing is part of the creative process’.

This is unfair in the context of ‘Away Days’ but is a suggestion of what you need to do to take ‘Away Days’ up several notches if you are to be published. Not a rewrite, not faffling about, but, head down, three hours, you’ve lost the original manuscript, you have to put it into someone’s hands by lunchtime. Just do it. Heady stuff. Exam conditions. From the top. Again. You can sing. This is about singing. Create some magic. Get angry with me, with it, with your characters, with just about everything … but use this anger to express yourself. And if not anger, some other equally devouring passion. Get it onto the page and let’s see it in sentence length, word choice, themes and indulgences. Take me on a trip and make me have to read on even though the phone just rang and keeps ringing and when the answer machine kicks in whoever it is has something urgent to say but I don’t give a monkey’s because someone has me by the throat and won’t let go. And she is the author of ‘Away Days’.

My notes are dense

My scribblings are dense. Notes, loops, deletions, inverted arrows, obscuring – good. I like what you write. I could not do this with something that wasn’t begging me to tinker. I enjoy your voice. Indeed I became you. I read it out loud, a gentle North American accent that slipped around between Jerry Hall and Tom Hanks as Forest Gump! Some words lost me. How do you say ‘either’ and ‘James’ and ‘aluminium’ ???

The first must

Put as much as you can in the present case. It takes you there. In doing so I could see this sequence of lyrical sketches. However this created the next problem. Chronology. Logic. Form. I found the flashbacks within flashbacks were getting me nowhere. What did work though, was to dip in and out of the present or past tense. As long as your reader knows what you are doing it works. You can be a narrator talking in the present, and talk in the present once you have climbed ‘over the fence’ as it were.

What ruined my chance of producing a ‘chapter’ for the group (I still could, still have chapters to release) was this ‘Conflict’ exercise. What I was doing was too tame,’ grey’. It lacked ‘black and white’. I have tossed in a lot of blue, and a little red. And some tears. I don’t want to write spaghetti shapes in a bland tomato sauce, I want to write pan seared scallops with snippets of dry cured bacon, on a bed of brown rice and pine nuts, with rocket salad. ‘Conflict’ for all of us could be a crucial moment. We may not like it, but we have to lie. We have to lie and enjoy it. Then call it fiction, then stand back and realise we have become writers. And hope that in the process we don’t confuse the lies we write about with the reality of the lives we lead.

It isn’t simply that we wish to be commercial

We share a desire to be ‘storytellers’, if we are good at telling stories we will become commercial. To do this I will have to shave off the filth that can get stuck to my stories, or go ‘underground’. I feel you have to do something else, I believe you have a voice, something special, but you are too shy, too polite. You may never share an enriched, explosive second draft rewrite of ‘Away Days’ but I feel you need to do this in order to reach something compelling and competitive. I could also recommend some viewing, if not reading. I devour movies, not books. So, to start with I should lend you, ‘Fucking Amal’, ‘My Life as a Dog’ and ‘Toto Le Heros’. Those of us who have not seen ‘Moulin Rouge’ should do so. Get the DVD too, the interview with Craig Pearce who shares how the screenplay was written is such fun, and so much something I want to do. (Remind Jonathan, he may not know, it but I was part of a group at Oxford who did this with him and Imogen Stubbs writing out what got written).

I dearly hope I haven’t upset you

Commenting on someone’s exposed heart is a privilege, but difficult. We are writers, not gardeners well able to nurture each other’s work. At times I loath to read anything by anyone, I am too caught up in squeezing my own drivel onto the page to care two hoots what someone else is saying. (Apologise to those reading this. I binge read, pages and pages, when the wind comes round and my passion to devour takes over). I can be disingenuously dismissive by being effusive. What you deserve, and others whose work I read deserve, is considered, focused, constructive criticism and support. Nurtured. Encouraged. Pointed in painful, daring, intolerable, acceptable directions – but moved on.

To do this we ought to meet outside the group

There is a pattern in what I feel I’ve identified in ‘Away Days’, the same issues arise again and again, the more so because I feel the opportunity I have had this last week has allowed me to see how easy it is and necessary it is :

-to speak in the present (ideally in the first person singular (for me)

-to run in order from start to finish, with few ‘flash backs’

-to invert points in a sentence in order to punctuate and so lead and control the audience.

-to expunge all vagueness.

Reading ‘Away Days’ out loud was magic

I had so much fun becoming this ‘other voice’. The kids weren’t around. It freaks them if I ‘act’ or speak a foreign language. It spooks them. Most importantly, I enjoyed the performance.

We want commercial success

We deserve it, you deserve it. To do so we must both learn to treat writing as a money generating, audience pleasing entertainment that in the 21st century has to compete with dozens of TV channels, magazines, novels and novellas, life, the internet, the radio – life and lots more!

Did you catch that article in the Weekend magazine of the Guardian on ‘New British Writers to watch in 2002?’ It makes for an informative read. Of the chosen five, three were writers anyway, published in magazines, online or with a TV series. The other two had done a ‘creative writing course’ (so they must work) … and they worked in book shops. The very best place to see you readers. I will never be published in Seaford, and nothing I write will appear in a public library – at this rate!

Would you not like to be amongst that bunch next year? Best new writers of 2003? With me? The both of us grinning cheekily and conspiratorially at each other on the front cover while the other ‘chosen few’ look uncomfortable?

Let’s meet

We can enjoy your writing, I hope I can help move it along, and if you would, you can decide what I might (or might not) submit to the group. I have these two novels, one scratching along to the 40,000 word mark scattered across the first 10 chapters, the other like a kid’s party balloon, vast and bulbous in places, thin in others … and a growing collection of short stories, that began on a theme of ‘cybersex’ and ‘sex on the net’ and seemed to be turning into a banana bunch on a common theme, but are now more like fruit in a bowl, a few bananas, apples and oranges, a passion fruit and a squashed over-ripe plum tomato that somehow got in there.

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