Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Great writers - nature or nurture?

Are writers taught or are they made? Is the ability to produce a great novel somehow derived from the genes, or is it a craft that can be learned through effort and good teaching?

Like all such questions, this is a false dichotomy. For a truly great writer, innate ability is surely needed. But learning the craft also. I have been privileged to witness so many students developing their capacity to write beautiful, powerful prose that I am convinced of the importance of good teaching in this process and that the innate ability is not as rare as some people claim.

There is a problem however. I have seen people postpone writing their first novel because they feel they are not quite ready. Instead, they do another writing course. And another. And another. Courses become a thing to do INSTEAD of writing.

You can't learn to write novels without writing novels.

Last night I gave the first in a series of classes designed to combat that problem. The deal is this: each student works on their novel through the week. This is the process from which they will derive most of their learning. And on Tuesday evening we all come together to talk about their progress, share samples of their work, answer problems that have arisen, give suggestions and encouragement. Each class will be 50% taught and 50% manuscript workshop.

With 14 students, the class is full. We couldn't fit anyone else in the room. I discovered that, curiously, there are 13 female participants and only one male. (Writing courses do typically attract more women than men, but this is more asymmetric than usual).

Everyone seemed focused on the prospect of writing and I sensed a creative excitement in the air. Novel writing gives that - a sense of excitement. It is a journey into the unknown. I'm really looking forward to the rest of this course.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Six things you should never do... if you are in a movie


1. If there has been a murder recently, trust the police to look into it rather than starting an investigation of your own. Follow this instruction even if you knew the victim.

2. Just because a building is creepy it doesn’t mean you have any right to break into it on a whim.

3. Just because the front door opens when you push it, doesn’t mean it is a good idea to step inside and look around. Consider the possibility that the opposite may be true.

4. On finding an old book or box in the house, don’t take a deep breath and blow the dust off the top. A slightly damp cloth will do the job far better without giving you or your fellow searchers an asthma attack.

5. However much time you feel it will save you in your search, never say, “let’s split up.”

6. On tripping over body in the dark, immediately call the police (see point 1). They may remind you of points 2 and 3, but will realise you are more likely to be a stupid person than a killer.

Four Plot Problems

There comes a time when the novel or screenplay gets pitched. That's when the product of our imagination and perspiration gets boiled down to a few short lines of prose - the story in a nutshell.

With all the gorgeous imagery stripped away, with all the texture, twists, turns and sub-plots gone, the producer, agent or publisher see our stories laid bare. It is an unforgiving moment - one in which any fundamental plot problems will probably be exposed. These are issues I try to anticipate BEFORE getting to the end of the writing process.

Here are four classic plot problems that should be clear by the time 25% of the story has been written.
  • We don’t identify with the protagonist. She/he may be in danger, in love or in pain but ultimately we don’t care.
  • The trigger is not big enough to make us believe the protagonist will do the things she/he will need to do in the story.
  • The trigger is reversible, so we do not believe the protagonist will stay the course when things get really tough. She/he should simply turn around and go back home to live a quiet life.
  • The protagonist is too passive – events happen and the protagonist reacts. The protagonist has become a character drifting down a river rather than actively swimming, someone that events happen to rather than a person who initiates change.

Friday, May 06, 2011

Strangeness in Stories

I'm putting together a workshop on storycraft for inclusion in a filmmaking course later in the year. Preparing the worksheets has set me thinking about the question of 'strangeness' in stories.

When people describe the archetypal patterns found in traditional stories they sometimes talk about the 'ordinary world' and the 'strange world'. The ordinary world is the home life of the protagonist before he/she starts the quest. The strange world is the unfamiliar landscape the protagonist will pass through before reaching the goal, whatever that may be.

This transition from ordinary to strange isn't confined to traditional hero epics. It comes up again and again in modern movies and novels.

The ordinary world may not be ordinary to us, the audience. But it is ordinary to the protagonist. If the protagonist is a racing driver, 'ordinary' means hurtling around the track at 150mph.

In a similar way, the strange world may not be strange to us, the audience, but will definitely be strange to the protagonist. One of the most important qualities of the strange world is that the rules the protagonist used to live by no longer hold good.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Lies, damn lies and referendums

The UK referendum on voting reform is almost here. I find myself increasingly annoyed with various advocates of the ‘No’ and the ‘Yes’ campaigns, who are being so conspicuously economical with the actualit√©. Some of the campaigning literature posted through my letterbox in the last couple of weeks has been risible.

Electing a government is not the proof of democracy. Democracy is proved when a government is dismissed – without the use of guns. This separation of authority from physical coercion ranks among humanity’s greatest triumphs. It deserves to be taken seriously.

Perhaps that is why I find myself getting so annoyed when people misrepresent the different options before us. They are disrespecting the very democracy they claim to want to uphold.
So here is my summary of the voting options:

• The present system simply returns the candidate who receives the most votes - even if that person is intensely disliked by the majority of voters.

• The AV system tends to return candidates who are not so widely hated, though they might not be the ones with the most first votes.

Either system would be fine. They just lead to slightly different flavours of representation.

Governments tend to accumulate unpopularity over time. Therefore, the AV system would probably make three-term governments less likely. If you think governments are able to do more good through a longer term in power, then you probably want to vote to keep the present system. But if you think that governments are better for having shorter periods in power, then you probably want to vote for a change to AV.

I still haven’t decided.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Not so silent

It may seem as if I have been silent for a few months, but it is not so. All my blogging recently has been on the Museum Buddies (MuBu) site.

But I will be returning my activities here very soon as the period of my digital writer residency is coming to an end.

In the meantime, this is the kind of thing I have been writing about:


Miles Travelled = 649
Museums Visited = 11
Mood = Hungry


I’ve been travelling around heritage locations in the East Midlands for a few months now and to be honest the only places I’ve been really aware of food were the various museum cafes which have sustained me on the journey – a jacket potato, a cup of tea and perhaps a bar of chocolate.

But that must change today. I’m travelling to Lincoln in the company of...


You can find the full article here at my MuBu blog

Friday, December 03, 2010

Rainbows and Ancient Landscapes

Readers of this stream may be interested to follow my work for the MuBu project on the Writer's Journey blog. I don't post notification here for every new MuBu article I write, but this one might be of interest.

The ancient landscape of the East Midlands
Travelling in Hope

The name ‘Fosse’ is derived from the Latin word for ‘ditch’ and perhaps echoes its origin as a line of defence. In the years after the Roman invasion in AD 43 it marked the northwest frontier of the empire...

The full article can be accessed on my MuBu Blog.

Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Dyslexic Success Dyslexic Failure

Could the non-dyslexic condition be likened to a drop of rain that falls on a wide low valley? However far from the centre it may land, the gentle pull of gravity will attract it towards the middle.

The dyslexic condition by contrast could be seen as a drop of rain that falls on a high ridge of land. Despite the natural psychological tendency for people to want to conform to the ways of society, and however average the starting point, dyslexics find themselves pushed, as if by some strange gravity, away from the middle, towards conspicuous achievement to one side or hopeless failure on the other.

It has been said that people can be divided into two types: those who divide people into two types and those who don’t. A joke that pokes fun at any such simple division. Life can’t be so simple.

And yet, consider these two statistics:

1) The proportion of the prison population in the UK who are dyslexic is far higher than the proportion of the general population who are dyslexic. In other words, something is making it more likely for dyslexics to end up in prison than non-dyslexics.

2) The proportion of entrepreneurial business leaders who are dyslexic is far higher than the proportion of dyslexics in the general population. In other words, something is making it more likely for dyslexics to become successful entrepreneurs.

What condition could predispose people to two such opposite outcomes? A condition that makes it hard for the individual to function in the same way as the bulk of society.

The experience of being dyslexic in a non-dyslexic world is like being constantly out of step. You can see everyone else is marching in time. You desperately want to do the same. But it takes such effort that you quickly fall out of step again.

You have two options:

1) Give up.

2) Try to find a solution.

Finding a solution is something that no one can teach you. Most people are not even aware that there is anything to be taught. If you’re not marching in step you must be lazy, careless or just bad.

The PE teacher shouts to the class. Everyone put your right foot forward and your left foot back. The dyslexic kid gets it wrong. Again. Hasn’t he been listening? Are you lazy? Careless? Obstructive? Are you deaf? The child is concentrating hard, trying to figure out a method for remembering the names to these two sides. The teacher couldn’t teach a method, even if he recognised the problem. The teacher doesn’t have a method to remember left from right. He doesn’t need one.

Nor do any of the others in the class.

The life of a dyslexic is full of such challenges. Finding answers to problems that aren’t problems to anyone else. Learning to battle, to try harder, to mistrust the way things have always been done, to always look beyond the obvious, to find a new path that no one else has seen.

Or to not find a path. That is the other possibility. To accept the labels that the PE teacher shouts. Daydreaming, careless, obstructive or just plane bad. After all, these labels do offer an explanation. Which is easier to say: “I didn’t do my homework because it was too difficult”, or “I didn’t do my homework coz I just didn’t, coz I’m the bad boy of the class”?

Take a bright child into nursery at age 4. Give him tasks he can’t do five days a week. Every day tell him he’s daydreaming or being obstructive. Tell him he’s bad. How many years will he hold out before figuring it’s easier to be what the teacher thinks he is? How many years could you hold out?

There is a psychological experiment in which two groups of people are given three anagrams to solve. Group ‘A’ have an easy one to solve first and a harder one to solve second. Group ‘B’ have two impossible anagrams. For the third anagram, both groups are given the same. It is moderately difficult. Almost all of group ‘A’ manage to solve it. The first two puzzles taught them to expect success. Almost none of group ‘B’ manage to do it. They have been taught to expect failure.

If such patterns can be set up in adults in a few minutes, what will be the effect of 12 years in the school system?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Smatrphones, unfriendly lists and geographical order

How should I organise my DVD collection? By title? By director? By genre, date or lead actor? Or should I carry on with my present approach - periodically scooping up the DVDs that have accumulated on the floor next to the television and shovelling them onto a nearby shelf?

The same question presents itself when people try to organise papers in an office or products in a supermarket. Specialists in organisation have devised many different systems. However, there is no one-size-fits-all answer, as the system which works best will depend on the individual using it. An excellent book on the subject is ‘A Perfect Mess – the hidden benefits of disorder.’ Highly recommended.

The question is of particular interest to me because, like many dyslexics, my creative, chaotic mind and my tendency to live in the moment lead to a level of chaos that some might find distressing. People of a delicate disposition on entering my office are likely to throw their hands in the air and cry: ‘You’ve been burgled. I’ll phone the police.’

Happily technology is helping with this. The computer allows me to change the way my files are sorted with the click of a button. Alphabetical, by date of creation, by file type, by size. This suits me well, bringing my creative chaos back towards the zone I like to call ‘functional disorder’ (as opposed to ‘dysfunctional disorder’ or ‘dysfunctional order’.) I keep my work space as paperless as possible. A decent shredder helps.

Those who follow this blog will know that a few months ago I bought a Dell Streak smartphone, hoping thereby to drive myself towards a higher level of functionality. I’m happy to report that my experience with it has been excellent so far, helping me deal more efficiently with dates, times, communications and places.

But it is the last of these that has been the revelation. Places. Smartphones are data access / data collection devices. Through GPS they know where they are to within a few metres anywhere on the planet. And the number of people carrying them is rocketing. Put those facts together and a future opens up before us in which location is increasingly used as a means of organising and retrieving information. And THAT is an exciting prospect. For me, anyway. It matches the way my mind works. Data scattered across a map is infinitely more friendly to me than data neatly arranged in a list.

I hope we are on the brink of a more dyslexic-friendly future.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Eddie Izzard speaks about dyslexia and creativity

The following interview of Eddie Izzard by Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s ‘Front Row’ touches on the relationship between dyslexia and creativity. The link is here, but I don’t know how long it will remain live, so I have made a rough transcription of the relevant part.

Eddie Izzard: I couldn’t do that writing bit. I kept trying to do the writing bit and sitting down and it wouldn’t come out. I couldn’t seem to write as fast as... My mouth was faster than my hand. So I said, what - happens - when... if - chickens - take - over - the - world, what - would - they... you know, and by that time, I don’t care.

Mark Lawson: There have been suggestions of a link between dyslexia and surrealism and some people have suggested that poets may be on the spectrum of dyslexia because they go for one word and get another. But there is possibly a connection in your comedy.

Eddie Izzard: I felt there’s a relationship between dyslexia and creativity. I believe that dyslexia tends to make you go off in a weird direction. And then you go: ‘Oh, that’s nice’. And that could well lead to that. And it’s interesting you saying about poets. I didn’t know about that. But I just thought creativity in general and dyslexia.

Mark Lawson: The learning of scripts, does that affect you?

Eddie Izzard: It doesn’t seem to. If I read things now, I can read better than I could. I used to really stumble over words. Big words. Especially names of people from a foreign country. I’d just go blah-blah-blah in my head. That’s how I’d read them out. Now I can read them. I’m just a really slow reader.

They say: ‘Read that script by tonight.’ People would knock it off in an hour or so if they’re probably a fast reader. But I have to stay up to three or four in the morning reading it. It just takes me twice, three times as long.

I sub-vocalise. I can’t do that thing when you ‘wshhhhhhhhht’ which some people do. I’d love to be able to. I’ve even got a speed reading book but, I... couldn’t get through it. Which is a joke in itself. But it was actually true. I got the speed reading book and I read half of it.

This is just an extract from a fascinating interview.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Dyslexic spelling from a 12 year old

I've turned up another example of dyslexic spelling. This time by a 12 year old. (Me again.) This one, which I found even deeper into the dust at the back of the shelf, came from a history project on Tudor England. And though you may have thought my spelling was singular at 13, this example from the year before is even more interesting.

It seems that I wasn't holding back so much in this work because I attempted words I had little idea of how to spell. The content of the writing is thus more interesting and the spelling more inventive.

This was my best work at the time.

The Sival War

In 1650 King-charls I was running in to det. So he whent to parlament to asck for mony Thay sead no so he brought some solders in to fors Them. but thay had herd abowt the atack and had escaped by bote so the sival war started.

One day the vilage was on one side and the next it was on the other. The vilagers did not like the ware and preferd to stay ought of it.

Parlimant's side was called the round heds the kings side was called the Cavalears. There was two mager batals. The batal of Marson Moor and the batal of Edgehill. The Roundheds worn the first and the cings men won the secand. Parlament wone the sivel war and Oliva cromwell was made leader of the country.

example of dyslexic spelling age 12

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Dyslexic spelling

The following example of dyslexic spelling turned up today as I was moving office. At the back of a deep shelf, I discovered a long forgotten box of school books, including the diary I had once been required to write. I believe the school's idea was that writing an entry a day would gradually help me to overcome my problems.

Reading it now, I'm struck by three things. First, that in recording the events of my life, I could only write about things I had a chance of being able to spell. Second, that even after slimming down my language and carefully choosing the subject, there was no way through the writing maze without having to make frequent spelling guesses. And third, that my teachers were kind enough to only correct one or two words in each entry.

So here, chosen at random, are three days worth of diary from a 13 year old dyslexic, who bizarrely went on to become a novelist.

Yesterday in gaims I had a tutorial it was good fun. We did some spelling ruls. In the evening I was playing a gaim called T.R.I Tactics. It was fun. Yong siantist and mishon imposable were on telivition.

Yesterday we had an English test it was grosum. I did farly well. Also yesterday we went on a run. we were not timed so we could Just trot round. In the evening we went swiming it was a practis for the swiming gala.

To day in the morning in english we did a leson on wrighting informal leters. After that in gography we starled maps of the Mendips.

Comments are as always welcome. But please don't correct the spelling. Having mistakes pointed out gets tiresome after the first thirty or forty years.

example of dyslexic spelling

Friday, October 15, 2010

#GMP24 twitter feed for crime writers

This is just a quick entry to point any crime writers who follow my blog in the direction of the Twitter feeds GMP24_1 GMP24_2 GMP24_3 and GMP24_4

GMP stands for Greater Manchester Police. The 24 is a reference to the fact that they were putting out a Tweet for every incident they dealt with over a 24 hour period. The 4 different feeds are due to the fact that the Tweeting had to be done in shifts, so thick and fast did the incidents happen.

The resultant feed is fabulous source material for crime writers. Or poets. Or any writer for that matter. Go see.

And here is a really interesting article from the BBC news website on the whole event. I've borrowed their graphic of a tag cloud of the stream because it is so good - and am putting this link in by way of thanks.



Thank you BBC and GMP.

MuBu: the Newark Houses Museum

Miles Travelled = 124.7
Museums Visited = 4
Mood = Slightly Embarrassed


The Newark Houses Museum is a last minute call. They’re having a MuBu project event. Something to do with videos. Would I be free to go along?

So, innocent of any knowledge about the project, or indeed the place, I hurry into Leicester, find the museum and present myself at reception.

It is at this point that I need to make another confession...

Read the complete article at the MuBu Writer in Residence website.

Newark Houses Museum, Leicester

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