The Nuts and Bolts of Writing
Are you a poet and you didn't know it? Tags: Writers Abroad writing ex-pat writers poetry

Some members of Writers Abroad write poetry. Some of us don’t. If I’m honest, I am always slightly uncomfortable critiquing a poem, since I don’t feel qualified in the technical aspects. I often read the winning poems in Writing Magazine competitions, but I skip over the accompanying critique.

The leader of our writing group suggested recently that we look at using poetry to sharpen our prose.

“Let’s all try writing a Haiku for homework,” she said.

I wondered if I could plead a prior engagement for our next meeting. I’ve heard of Haikus (Japanese poem of 17 syllables divided into 3 lines of 5, 7 and 5 non-rhyming syllables), but this will be my first attempt at writing poetry since I was a child. And that was pretty turgid stuff.

When I read the material she circulated about using poetic techniques in writing prose, my interest was pricked. Poets use words to present an image or an idea, often in a very economical way. I learned that the first line of a poem is crucial in challenging or surprising the reader and setting up the idea. The last line is equally important in rounding off the theme. The two provide a unity that the lines in between develop. Try applying this to one of your favourite poems.

I tried this with John Donne, one of my poets of choice.

1st line: No man is an island entire of itself

Last line: And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

In between: development of the theme of our common humanity.

Sounds familiar? You can apply this to the first and last lines of a short story or a novel. Is the theme clear from the start? Have you taken the reader on a journey from a problem or a challenge to a destination? Does what happens in between develop that journey?

The use of individual words or phrases is also significant. To keep the reader’s interest, poets have to find new ways of presenting emotions or describing images without falling back into cliché. The novelist Helen Dunmore was a poet. The language in her novels shines. She sometimes used words that made you sit up, but when you thought about it, you knew they were exactly right.

Have a look at one of your works in progress, identify any clichéd language or emotion and try to come up with more original turns of phrase. Focus particularly on the first paragraph or two.

Now I am off to tackle the biggest writing challenge of the year so far: composing a Haiku.

Edit. Edit. Edit. Or not. Tags: writing editing

There’s nothing quite as satisfying as writing a page or several pages of stream-of-consciousness prose. Or poetry, I guess, though I’ve little experience there. Releasing the creative juices in that fashion leaves me with a warm fuzzy feeling inside. Sometimes. But then what? Edit.

Reading it over straight away can leave me with the impression that it should be left as it is. Raw. Straight from the heart. Put the piece aside for a few days and glaring errors jump off the page.

Even so, I believe this kind of writing should be treated with silk gloves. It’s all too easy to kill the original spark of creativity that sets us off and kill the very essence of the writing. Plot, story, theme, characterisation can all be worked on, but not the essence. That precious unknown quantity.

So how much do we edit? Personally, I go for the usual suspects: grammar and punctuation, overuse of adjectives and adverbs, finding a stronger verb, saying the same thing twice, using the correct word, over-writing, making sure I’ve started in the right place. Often I delete the first paragraph completely. The same goes for the ending. And so it goes, on and on and on – ad infinitum – until my head is dizzy and I lose the will to live.

I read of one author – interviewed in Writing Magazine – who said that he’d edited/rewritten his novel 50 times before it was ready for publication. No surprise then that it took him 15 years to write! Authors lucky enough to have publishers and deadlines wouldn’t have that luxury (probably the wrong choice of word). In any case I’d be sick to death with the sight of a novel long before I’d reread it 50 times.

I write mostly short fiction and have been guilty of editing a story to within inches from its grave.  Because rereading two or three thousand words is easy, the temptation is there to edit and edit and edit. I’ve done this with travel articles as well, but luckily when commissioned the deadline kept editing within reason as time ran out. Competitions also have deadlines, the problem is if you miss one there’s usually another one with a later closing date. And so the editing continues.

I don’t know if any of you get this sudden moment of truth, when a little genie whispers, ‘Stop! Send it off.’ Enough is enough. I can tell I’ve gone a bit OCD when I start turning the verbs I’ve changed in the story back to the originals. Aargh. Stop. Stop. Stop.

Some articles or blogs I’ve read on the subject suggest you can never rewrite enough. On the other hand, here’s a quote from Margaret Atwood: ‘If I waited for perfection, I would never write a word.’

It probably won’t surprise you after reading this that I’ve hardly edited this blog at all. My little genie whispered ‘Post or we’ll be here all night!’

Hair, it's our Crowning Glory Tags: creative writing hair fictional characters human hair trade Emma Tarlo hair in fiction

 

At least that’s what women are led to believe from an early age and the beauty industry is more than happy to divest us of our money in pursuit of that ideal. I’ve been thinking about fictional characters’ hair a lot recently. In films and novels Caucasian women often have character-defining hair. Black; witchy and duplicitous, red; fiery and vivacious; blonde; angelic or tarty, brown; plain and intelligent, grey/white; wise and intellectual, curly; unpredictable and bubbly, straight; cool and calculating. This left me with a dilemma because I was struggling to choose the hair colour and type of my young, female protagonist, but I didn’t want to push her into any of those stereotypes.

 

 

In a Tangle

So I began to tackle the problem in a circuitous way and by happy accident discovered the fascinating, non-fiction book, Entanglement: The Secret Lives of Hair by Emma Tarlo. Now, like you, I knew that both men and women can need wigs for a variety of medical, cosmetic or religious reasons but I had no idea of the global, largely covert, billion-dollar trade in the procurement and processing of human hair into wigs and extensions. Sourcing hair generally starts in third world countries. Some women sell their hair to barbers for a short-lived respite from poverty in China, India, Myanmar and Pakistan. On the other side of the world, relatively wealthy women choose to boost their income by selling their hair directly to the client via the Buy and Sell Hair website. The reasons for sale are as various as the hair types on offer. Hindus have their hair tonsured in Indian temples as a way of showing thanks, or to seek rebirth; indeed the vast temple of Tirumala acts as a magnet for pilgrims drawing people and hair from all over India. Each year the tonsured hair adds around 20 million pounds to the temple’s coffers.

 

Giveaway Hair

Sometimes, hair donation is purely altruistic as in the recent case of the Duchess of Cambridge donating seven inches of her locks to the Little Princesses Trust for children and young adults who have lost their hair through cancer treatment. How bizarre to think that a sick child somewhere will be wearing our future Queen consort’s hair. Truly a crowning glory! The hair is sorted anonymously so no one will ever know that their wig contains Kate’s tresses.

 

Decisions, Decisions

While all these hair stories make fascinating reading, it isn’t taking me nearer a solution in my writing dilemma! What it does show me though is how important this decision is and how much identity and status are invested in luscious locks or lack thereof. Would Dennis the Menace be as naughty without his black, unruly mop? Could Heathcliff have been blonde? Could Pippi Longstocking have had mousey-coloured hair? Would Bond villain, Blofeld, have been as menacing if he weren’t bald? How do you decide your characters’ hair colour and type? Can you think of fictional characters defined by their hair? I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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