Category Archives: Course Information

Self, Other and Rupert Thomson

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Possibly the most important thing in teaching creative writing to adults is getting across that there is No Wrong Answer. Everything you write is a combination of your unique imagination, memory and viewpoint; the more your confidence and courage grow as a writer, the wider and more surprising the results will be.

Yet most questions students ask in creative writing workshops run along the lines of  ‘Is it alright if…’, ‘Am I allowed to…’ etc. The answer to all of these is a passionate ‘Yes!’ It is absolutely fine – and absolutely necessary – to experiment in whatever direction feels interesting. That’s how your get to know your story, complete your first draft and – as all worthwhile creative writing advice can be distilled down to – you need to write your first draft before you can edit it. There is only one question about creative writing that has ever irritated me, and no writer or writing student has ever asked it. Others have. It is “Why write as male?”

The reason writers don’t ask this question is writers realize very quickly that the quickest route to the universal is the specific: your reader recognising themself in the other comes from authenticity about that other. Writing that character in the first place does too. Empathy – the discovery of commonality of emotion with someone else – is much of why we write (“Only connect.” – E.M. Forster).

My short story Wolf in the Mirror won first prize in Writers’ Forum a couple of years ago. The protagonist was secretly in love with someone he couldn’t tell. His jealousy, like so much gothic fiction, was becoming a literal monster. Currently, only he could see it in the mirror but knew it was silently threatening to break out. When it was suggested to me by someone who I really don’t think intended to be sexist and patronising (any more than the dinosaurs meant to become extinct) wasn’t the point of being a female writer the female voice, I took a moment to suppress the scream, and said something along these lines:

No gender owns jealousy, love, fear or any other emotion. It’s easier to be truthful about them when you have a bit of distance (be that a distance of time from an event, or in this case a distance of gender, aesthetic tastes and many, many other aspects I changed between me and the viewpoint character of that story).

If you want to see this done really well, in prose that is effortlessly elegant, gripping and honest, look no further than Rupert Thomson.

Never Anyone But You is a fictionalised memoir and bildungsroman of two artists who fought against gender boundaries, artistic traditions and the Nazis. As teenagers, they fell in love before there was vocabulary for it, chose male names and men’s clothes, lived as sisters in the veiled eyed of the world when their single father and mother married, championed surrealism, resisted the Nazis and survived imprisonment by the SS and suicide attempts before and during their incarceration. Thomson’s prose is as astounding as the history that informs it. In the narrative voice of Suzanne Malherbe, who chooses the name Marcel Moore, Thomson writes fearless, direct emotion. One human being appreciating another is not about what that other looks like: the reason this emotional landscape makes every dialogue and every sex scene so believable is it does not try to be female – it is beautifully human. Her relationship with Claude Cahun, born Lucy Schwob, remains passionate and credible from teen to old age. Here are some of the reasons:


1)Emotions not organs. If you take a look at the bad sex awards – if you don’t believe me – what the annual winners usually have in common is attention to anatomical detail. Bad sex scenes are driven by anatomy. Good ones are driven by emotional connection.

2) Drive the plot. This is the most elegant and direct style I’ve read all year, but that would be nothing without momentum. You can feel the plot ticking beneath every scene, a sense of what is impending, what is returning. We never lose the sense of when or where we are – the test of good historical fiction is that the story needs that setting in time and place – but characterisation is not overshadowed by this: it is enabled. Each character fully inhabits their life.

3) Recognise yourself in the other, whether this means another gender, a Nazi guard or whether your character is yourself. Just a little distance, a spoonful of otherness, and you’ll find all the more self is waiting.

From July 2018, this blog will continue at the Writers’ and Artists’ website.

Subjectivity, James Wood and First World Problems

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

In my Ten Writing Touchstones series for Bloomsbury’s Writers’ and Artists’ website, I mention how new writers occasionally confuse ‘the truest thing you know’ (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” – Ernest Hemingway) with autobiography. Human experience is subjective, and truth will not necessarily be autobiographical any more than autobiography is necessarily objective or definitive truth. We, like the fictional characters we create, will always have our own agendas. We are subjective about our motives, our results and everything that happens in between. No narrator is entirely reliable.

Nor would any agent, publisher or reader wish it otherwise. Getting away from the hopes and fears, memories and associations that make an individual who they are is the last thing truthful writing asks. But nor is truthful writing simply copying down from memory. Truth doesn’t demand objectivity; it does demand self-awareness of the subjectivity of personal experience. Like a particularly beautiful distorting mirror, fiction clarifies outline, shapes narrative, makes elegant and comprehensible what is chaotic. It chooses where beginnings and endings will sit; it contextualises them with the circumstantial evidence of best-fit for the message or plot it has chosen as its framework; it sprinkles hindsight and foresight over events. It is intrinsic to voice. James Wood knows all this. His taste and talent for exploring philosophy through fiction went down well in The Nearest Thing To Life (2015). He also wrote How Fiction Works (2009). Yet here I am at of his latest novel, Upstate, still waiting for something to happen.

Alan Querry leaves his home in the north of England with his successful, music industry executive daughter, Helen, to visit her sister, his US-based, depressed, academic daughter, Vanessa. The immediate cause of this overdue reunion is a note from Vanessa’s boyfriend who they’ve not met but comfortably disapprove of from afar. Alan’s mental declarations of love for both his daughters are plentiful. So are his declarations of guilt at his divorce from their mother – guilt he is quick and regular in diminishing for the reader, with reminders of his late wife Cathy’s adultery. Most awkward of all in this inner monologue of a novel (with token linear time-checks in the shape of breakfasts, dinners and the opening and shutting of car doors and laptops): the relentless, tell-don’t-show depiction of Vanessa. Her personality is composed of little beyond vulnerability, unworldliness and weakness. The longer this built, the more of a revelation I hoped for when family legend would be confronted with the reality of Vanessa upon Helen and Alan’s arrival. That didn’t happen. Neither, really, did anything else.

reads like a very intelligent draft. The plot outline, though thin, could have been a perfectly sound platform to raise the stakes and build full, contrasting characters, and so let the philosophy that interests Wood convey itself through action and dialogue. Instead, all is introspection. Worse, it’s introspection from a man we don’t see in action long or tellingly enough to know, trust or feel strongly about. In one chapter, external to Alan, floating dialogue lets us watch Helen and Vanessa speak to each other without him. By the time I got there (chapter 27 of 40), that passed for action (but did it pass the Bechdel test? It did not).

It’s possible to make readers care about and even respect a character’s first world problems if that character gains our sympathy, but the stakes and investment and level of direct action the reader feels privy to are so low it becomes a struggle to finish let alone care. There may be deliberate irony when Alan’s barely-interrupted thought train conveys that Helen “did things while Vanessa thought things” but if so it is not deliberate or careful enough.  When Alan comes up with his mental term for Helen’s accent as “winebar posh”, it is one of the great questions he answers in his mind. Alan Querry is exactly what the unsubtle nominative determinism suggests: a self-questioning, well-off, middle-aged white man thinking about things. If western literature was ever going to satisfied with a white, well-off man thinking about being a white, well-off man, this, thank God, is not the era for it. If this rambling were a spiral staircase, bringing us closer to the narrative voice or the others it all too briefly leaps into, fine. But it’s not. It’s a circular walk, leaving the reader no more enlightened. This doesn’t even tell the reader the truest thing it knows, let alone convey or show it.

May writing tip inspired by this month’s author, James Wood:

Write your first draft – and don’t worry about any of this.

For most of us, a first draft is guilty of everything I’ve described above – a section that is almost entirely dialogue, a section that is almost entirely exposition. Good. That’s what a first draft is for: getting it out of your busy, indecisive brain and on to a page where you can meet and edit it in the real world (or at least the real notebook/computer screen).

Now begin the real writing – which is, of course, the rewriting. Invite us in. Mix it up. Allow the elements of introspection, dialogue and action to balance, make room around each other. Show with actions and well-chosen personality driven words what each character wants and whether it’s in their interest to say it.

Make things happen.

There will probably be a lot of thinking. Notice it. Frame it in linear time. Convert lots of it into dialogue or sensory detail. In literature and in life, actions speak loudest. Philosophy communicates itself through action, not the other way around. Now you have a second draft.

Show it to friends who know about writing.

You don’t need to follow all the advice you get but you do have to listen to it. What people don’t understand is useful to know – it means it hasn’t been translated from individual truth to universal truth yet.

Show it to friends who don’t know about writing.

Repeat previous step but pick your least fiction-friendly friends and see what they enjoy, don’t enjoy, don’t understand, love, totally fail to comprehend. It’s all useful. Say thank you, don’t try to change a reader’s mind, just note the response and move forward your way.

Encourage your editor to challenge you.

For now that may be your best friend/mum but get good editorial habits now. Make the use of your editor. When you’re writing for money, you’re providing a service. Your audience pays you, not the other way around. You owe them a story. Use your editor. Make them ask you the difficult questions in their head. Believe in your idea, but let your editor help you communicate it better.

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Realism, Magic Realism and Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell

Monthly book recommendation and free writing exercise. Discover more at

Most performers will have been asked at some time or other how naturalism onstage is different to being natural. My way of dealing with that one is usually to illustrate it. You only need to be the other side of a room from a conversation to see how vague and rapid our gestures and sentences are, how much more comprehensible our meaning when words and gestures are simplified (or edited, if you will). That’s how to get the meaning into the audience’s mind as directly and “effortlessly” as possible. “Naturalism” – a simplified, streamlined version of the truth – conveys more of that truth than “nature” could at such a distance. It’s the difference between a good novel and a first draft. So, yes, a lot of art and effort goes into creating the appearance of the real. And, no, reality itself doesn’t cut it.

Most people grasp that difference, if not with the visual demonstration then with the audio equivalent: for those worried about public speaking, clarity is a much better focus than volume. Focusing on what you’re trying to say, and not what your hair is doing or what the audience might be thinking, you make the point without apologising for it or for yourself with the smaller, awkward false starts and gestures of everyday life. You don’t waste mental space with words that sound big or clever; you choose words because they are the most direct route to your meaning.

I’ve known graphic novels to take similar explaining. We’ll take as read (sorry) the sadly common assumptions about “comics” being “for kids” and go back to directness and clarity. Authorial voice is, of course, saying what you mean as only you can – hence the finite number of basic plots and the infinite number of original voices. Graphic novels do this in pictures as well as words: a beautifully direct route into someone else’s world. My favourite example in a long time is Bizarre Romance, published last month by Jonathan Cape.

This collection of “short stories with pictures” is partly inspired by the long-distance courtship of its creators, Audrey Niffenger (The Time Traveller’s Wife, Her Fearful Symmetry, The Three Incestuous Sisters &c) and Eddie Campbell (From Hell, Baccus, Alec &c). Living in Brisbane, Australia and Chicago, USA, “two cities that are almost exactly opposite each other on the globe”, they heard about each other’s days, weeks and worlds by telephone. Once married, and asked by the Guardian to collaborate on the “Novelists Do Comics” section, they revisited other stories by Niffenegger: “In the past I have been my own illustrator… Taking risks is always surprising and often uncomfortable… The result has been a book that neither of us would have made alone – a book that is ours.”

Mental and physical distances, familial and romantic relationship, endings both happy and unhappy flit between the world as we know it and beyond with courage and precision. From angel-infested loft to Victorian asylum, cruise-ship to afterlife, from parent to friend and pet to partner, every love and every story is crystal-clear in voice and insight. The introduction is Audrey and Eddie’s courtship, a beautiful love story that means the punches the next few pack catch you off guard. This is not romanticism, it’s nowhere close: it is magic realism, fully deserving both parts of that name. You’ll recognise yourself, your loves, your fears. The truth and beauty of magic realism, like realism onstage, is the strange brings the familiar into sharpest focus. Reading Niffenegger is like the first day of wearing new glasses.

April writing tip inspired by this month’s authors, Audrey Niffenegger and Eddie Campbell:

Get Real…
Forget the reader just for a minute, or just for a page. Forget what you think you “should” write, “normally” write, or “can” write. Look at the image in your head, look at the reason it’s there. Pick up the pen, and say what you see. Don’t stop until the page is covered. Now look back. Maybe cross out the conjunctions. See how clear, how simple, how specific you can be. Anything that apologises for what you want to say, cross it out. It doesn’t matter how big or small what you want to say is – you have the right to say it.

…But Don’t Stop There
We don’t live only in here and now. We’re worrying about what happened yesterday and what might happen tomorrow. We’re associating, and remembering, and hoping and fearing. Why put all that in backstory when the little voice in your character’s head could be a bird/rabbit/dragon sitting on the nearest wall? Just as an experiment, add an extra dimension to the world you’ve created and see what happens next. You might find the questions you’re asking have more ways to venture out. That’s how to start freeing your voice and ask your questions.

Example from this month’s author:

“The thing that makes us want God is the same thing that makes us want Art – we want meaning. We want there to be more than meets the eye. God is an attempt at an explanation for the universe. Art is not an explanation. Art is a question permanently unanswered.”

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Time, Death and Maggie O’Farrell

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I Am, I Am, I Am – Maggie O’Farrell (published December 2017)

Confucius lives on the home screen of my iPhone. It’s a photo I took of the cardboard box my Sherlock Holmes candle came in a couple of Christmases ago. Confucius shares the screen – and the cardboard – with Plato and Chekhov (in word form, of course). ‘Choose a job you love,’ says Confucius, ‘and you will never work a day in your life’.

Today, though, I was sure I must be cheating.

Green Ink Writers’ Gym had just begun its Christmas break, LAMDA Exams tuition had finished for the term and as I moved into my holiday “office” (laptop, coffee, sofa) I was looking at one of the best “have to”s of my career. My deputy PhD supervisor had suggested that for the first part of my exegesis I reread every novel by Maggie O’Farrell. I would document why and what I loved about my favourite author, explore her influence on my writing and what I thought we (she and I, a comparison I barely dare type) derive from our shared family tree of gothic literature. I would reread her seven novels in order – just in time for the publication of her first autobiographical work, I Am, I Am, I Am: seventeen brushes with death.

I was introduced to Maggie O’Farrell’s books by my friend Jim Craddock. It was the early 2000s and Jim was Head of Workshop at the Questors Theatre. He’d begun that twenty-year career when he hit retirement age as a teacher and inspector of schools, so would have been pushing eighty when he photocopied the openings of a selection of his favourite novels for me to consider as I worked on my own beginnings. One of these was After You’d Gone, Maggie O’Farrell’s debut novel. The feeling was less akin to falling in love than falling in empathy. With an author, yes, but also with the world as I knew it. The clarity with which she inhabits time periods, keeping different eras of characters’ lives and generations of families while keeping the reader within a vivid timeline, brings you close to an individual and their personal and familial networks with the thoroughness of an encyclopaedia and the lightness of a feather.

I’d like to think Jim saw something in me beyond the shyness and the mentally and physically paralysing wish to please that have characterised the hardest times of my life. I’d like to think he saw a writer. I am sure, given that Jim was one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, that it wouldn’t have mattered if he hadn’t. Jim gave me confidence to see myself as a writer. The Green Ink Writers’ Gym slogan is Boost your confidence – and your word-count. Jim didn’t live to see me begin teaching at Waterstones Piccadilly or any of the venues that have since become home to the workshops, but he did live to see me get my first short story published and my first request for more from a literary agent. I’m glad I’d found enough voice in time to thank him for what he’d (possibly) seen and (certainly) done. One of the two other quotes keeping Confucius company on my iPhone is Plato’s ‘The beginning is the most important part of the work’.

For linear beings, we humans are never exclusively “now” any more than we are exclusively ourselves. We are networked in time and in voice with friends, family, teachers, colleagues, heroes and anti-heroes. Drafting the first version of my exegesis – and flicking to another Word doc or seven as my mind interrupts with new material or edits the old like the centrifuge I am – Jim is as present in my sofa-office as my own characters and Maggie O’Farrell’s. But so are less helpful influences, such as those to whom it was more important a sentence be correct in form than true in voice. At best they didn’t make clear to us the difference between technique (learn the toolkit) and interpretation (use it creatively); at worst they were training us for a literary world they wanted back, instead of opening us up to the undiscovered country. In my case, that teacher made me love and feel welcome in literature in the first place so I regret nothing, least of all the struggle to identify what rebellion was needed. The challenge is learning to take from the past what I want but leave what I do not. After all, it’s my past. For a short story or chapter to come to life, it needs to be secured framed in a present from which to remember and to project. Past and future are important but there must be no time like the present.

The third quote on my iPhone screen is Chekhov’s ‘You must trust and believe in people or life becomes impossible.’ It’s as true on the page as off: every character is the product of every character and time that formed them. We are all networked, but we’re also all alone with ourselves and that’s who to trust to get truthful, individual developing characterisation. So dip into the past. Wallow, even. You never know what you’ll find. But remember the point of the journey back is the journey forward. What you’re really there for to propel your story towards an authentic future, shaped by your own voice.

January writing tip inspired by this month’s author, Maggie O’Farrell

1. Past/Present/Future: Self
Walk your character around somewhere very familiar to them (on paper, naturally). Perhaps pick a place you, their author, haven’t spent enough time in yet and could do with seeing more carefully (and hearing and smelling and touching and even tasting). It could be a current home, the local pub, a childhood haunt they loved or hated. Every room will have memories in it. You might find as soon as you start allowing yourself to write about the memories they overwhelm the piece. That’s fine, in fact it’s the whole point: a first draft is a playroom, a place of discovery.

2. Ladder Rungs
Now comes the structure. What is your character trying to do? Are they looking for something? Performing a task? Are the memories an obstacle to what they want or have they come here to see if the past where the answer lies? Shape a beginning and an ending for your chapter or story through their intention and the result. See how much exploration of memories can be supported by the current, linear time of the story. ‘Now’ is your story’s ladder rungs: keep checking in with ‘Now’ or your reader will fall through the spaces instead of floating happily from one rung to the next. Just make the past your story’s carrying so heavy you break the rung.

3. Painting the Ladder
Now zoom in on your character and their reactions to their environment (present) and memories (past). What do they see? How do they judge it? What does it remind them of? Are they wearing rose-tinted spectacles? Blinding themselves with hindsight? Wishing something was different? What are they going to do about it? No memory is neutral, or entirely reliable. What does their attitude to the past tell the reader about who they are in the present? Allow yourself to play with details and interpretations.

Example from this month’s author:
Check out this “ladder” example from Instructions for a Heatwave, Maggie O’Farrell’s sixth novel. It’s the first section called Gloucestershire. In the first edition it’s on page 41. The section begins “For Monica, it began with the cat.” I’m not going to comment on it, just wish you a happy journey. Do start at the beginning.

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