A Writer’s Guide to Dungeons & Dragons

Dungeons and Dragons Dice

Pssst… are you playing Dungeons & Dragons yet? In case you didn’t know, it’s not just for ‘nerds’ any more, hiding in their bedrooms with stacks upon stacks of impenetrable lore. These days, D&D has experienced a massive resurgence — partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things — and is now the focus of some of the most watched podcasts on the internet, played by stars like Magic Mike’s Joe Manganiello, Daredevil’s Deborah Ann Woll and action superstar Vin Diesel. Groups across the country are springing up and struggling to make room for massive influxes of players.

That’s because D&D is buckets of fun, but it’s also a fantastic tool for writers, allowing them to sharpen their craft without even thinking about it. I started playing D&D around 18 months ago — first as a player-character, and then embarking on a year-long campaign as the group’s dungeon master. The benefit for writers is present on both sides of the screen, whether you’re taking your Level 5 Fighter for a romp through the Underdark or plotting your players’ demise at the hands of Strahd von Zarovich, so whichever way you’re taking part, there’s plenty of opportunity to learn a thing or two.

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D&D has seen a massive resurgence in recent years, partially thanks to Netflix nostalgia machine Stranger Things

But wait, the treasure’s over this way!

As a player or a dungeon master (DM, if you’re being technical about it), one of the first things you’ll need to get down is improvising, and being quick about it. When there are multiple voices at the table, and dragons have gotta get slain, there’s no time for extensive debate. So, if the DM throws in an assassination attempt on your way back to Waterdeep, or your party’s dwarven warlock decides to hijack the party’s boat, you need to figure out how you’re going to react.

That quick-fire storytelling can be really helpful when it comes to your own writing, especially when you find characters wandering off in their own direction, or a plot thread that seems to be steadily gaining a life of its own. Don’t be afraid to see where the rabbit hole takes you; a little improv can take your story in new and exciting directions.

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As with writing, mastering D&D requires preparation – especially if your DM happens to enjoy curveballs (or, indeed, balls of any description)

Preparation is key

 Playing the role of the DM? You’ll need to make sure you’re prepared for your next session. Even if you’re running a module, also known as a pre-written campaign, you’ll need to read through the sections you’ll be handling before your session. It’s often helpful to draft a few pieces of dialogue or something to set the scene, and having that ‘prep time’ in mind can give you the perfect excuse to carve out time in your weekly schedule to write.

It’s also worth remembering that you’ll probably toss out about 70% of what you had planned for the session, based on how your group react, but that’s okay — after all, that’s what editing is like most of the time.

Accents maketh the monk

D&D is also your opportunity to do really, really silly accents. I’m currently playing a Grave Cleric called Gwendolyn who sounds like she’s from Merthyr Tydfil, and while it may seem like an excuse to play the fool, giving my character an accent is one extra level of separation for me. As soon as I start talking like Gwendolyn, I find it much easier to inhabit her shoes, figure out what her motivations are and make decisions that are wholly within her character, rather than what I would do personally — a handy trick for writing difficult passages. The same goes for DMs; giving non-player characters a distinctive accent that’s different from your own voice can help them become more than just Goon #1, and you might be able to build a compelling story around them.

This is our story, nobody else’s

Perhaps one of D&D’s biggest appeals (besides an excuse to hang out, eat junk food and sink a few beers) is the fact that it’s a story everyone can get involved with. Working with other people to effectively create and tell a story is ridiculously good fun, and especially if you’ve been struggling to find the time to start writing, it can help you satisfy that creative itch. Even if you’re playing a classic module, or a campaign you’ve completed with a different group, the story is different every time.

Bardic inspiration

Once you step away from the table and put the d20s back in your bag, the fun doesn’t end there. When I get back from a session, I’m filled with ideas for what might happen next time, and sometimes that even translates into a new story or something to try out in an existing piece of work. It’s thanks to D&D that I’ve felt more creative in those past 18 months than I have in years, whether I’m devising a new campaign scenario or coming up with a backstory for my latest character.

So, where to start…

While D&D can seem overwhelming to the uninitiated at first, the main thing to remember is that it’s a game, with the primary purpose of having fun with some friends. Creating a new character shouldn’t take hours upon hours (unless you want it to!) but should serve as a springboard for your next adventure. Sit back, relax, pick up a pencil and see where it takes you – whether that’s fighting bandits, sourcing magical ingredients or changing the multiverse as you know it.

 About the author of this post

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Robyn Hardman is a writer, blogger and a PR and marketing consultant based in the Cotswolds. When she’s not writing press releases about silly cars, she’s usually in the pit at your local punk show. She tweets as @twobeatsoff.

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Creatives in profile: interview with K.M. Elkes

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Writing flash fiction takes skill, precision and – perhaps more than anything – hard work and dedication. When done well, these micro-stories can throw the reader in and out of the human condition in profound and unpredictable ways.

Some have said flash fiction stories are a part of our social media age, our insta-lifestyles, our shortened attention spans, our handheld devices, our micro-making of everything. Yet, in a world preciously short of big ideas, we could do with some of the big ideas contained within these short tales. And we could do with more

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with one of these writers willing to put pen to paper to bring these short tales – and their ideas – to us.

K.M. Elkes’s short fiction has won (or been placed) in a number of international writing competitions including the Manchester Fiction Prize, The Fish Publishing Flash Prize, the Bridport Prize and the PinDrop Prize, as well as appearing in more than 30 anthologies. His work has also been published in literary magazines such as UnthologyThe Lonely CrowdStructo and Litro. A flash fiction collection All That Is Between Us will be published in paperback by AdHoc Fiction in 2019. He is a short story tutor for Comma Press and his work has also been used on schools and college curriculum in USA and Hong Kong.

Elkes lives and works in the West Country, UK. A recipient of an Arts Council England award, he is currently working on a debut short story collection and a novel. As a writer with a rural working class upbringing, his work often reflects marginalised voices and liminal places.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

ELKES

In summary – writer, teacher, musician, traveller, ginger, potty-mouth. Not always in that order. I currently live in Bristol, but my background is rural working-class Shropshire.

INTERVIEWER

Is writing your first love, or do you have another passion?

ELKES

Writing is one of the things, like making music, that I cannot not do. It’s more complicated than love or passion.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

ELKES

Single-minded people – I’m too ‘jack of all trades, master of none’, so I draw inspiration from writers, particularly women or those from less privileged backgrounds, who have had the singleness of vision to succeed against the odds.
And pole vaulters – their sport is rife with symbolism.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

ELKES

I went to a tiny rural primary school in Shropshire that had about 30 children and two teachers. It was stuck in a 1930s time warp – two classrooms, no inside toilets, dinners delivered lukewarm on the back of a van. But that school and those teachers instilled a hunger for reading in me that has been the catalyst for many things.

INTERVIEWER

What draws you to flash fiction?

ELKES

As a form based around concision, it combines poetry’s attention to language and rhythm with the prose tools of plot, characterisation, dialogue etc. Within that there are infinite colours, moods and stories, so what’s not to like?

INTERVIEWER

One of the joys of English is that, while its huge vocabulary can be deployed in mesmerising Joycean arpeggios, it can just as easily concentrate its meaning in a few well chosen words. In the age of Twitter, why do you think so many people are increasingly attracted to the brevity of short, flash or ‘micro’ fiction?

ELKES

I’m not a fan of the notion that people have short attention spans so they are attracted to shorter forms. Just because something is short doesn’t mean it requires less concentration and effort to read. I would hope more people are attracted to the form because they recognise it can produce genuinely good writing. The rise of social media and digital platforms for writing has no doubt helped.

INTERVIEWER

What do you think a story needs in order for it to be a story?

ELKES

Movement. Not necessarily plot, but a sense that something has changed.

INTERVIEWER

How easy do you find it to move between different writing forms/mediums – can you balance writing a novel with crafting flash fiction or short stories?

ELKES

Transitioning between different forms is not difficult. Writers who claim otherwise are probably just procrastinating. In fact, changing forms is a good way to give the kaleidoscope a shake to find new ideas. What is difficult, sometimes, is the act of writing itself, whatever the form.

INTERVIEWER

How do you maintain your motivation for writing?

ELKES

By reflecting at length on the fact that I don’t have motivation to carry out just about any other form of gainful employment.

Also by dreaming of the day when I can walk into a bookshop and find a section devoted just to short fiction, rather than having to play ‘hunt the collections’ among the general fiction…

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel writers should feel any ethical responsibility in their roles?

ELKES

I don’t think it is ethical for a writer to create ethical responsibilities for other writers – they need to deal with their own shit.

Having said that it grinds my gears when well-established writers phone it in for cash. Such as when novelists supply distinctly average ‘been-in-the-bottom-drawer-awhile’ pieces for occasional short story specials in newspapers or magazines. In this case, maybe the ethical motto should be: ‘Do your best or don’t bother’.

INTERVIEWER

Do you have a specific audience in mind when you write?

ELKES

No. Except that maybe the fantastic audience who came to a live literary event I did in Bath last year and laughed like drains at my funny stuff and emoted all over my sad pieces. They can come and sit in the room while I’m writing (if they bring their own chairs).

INTERVIEWER

What are your thoughts on some of the general trends within the writing industry (if we can call it thus)? Is there anything in particular you see as being potentially future-defining?

ELKES

The trend to encourage more diversity in writing and publishing is something I would like to see continuing. As someone from a working-class background, I know there are barriers still in place. But I also know I have to check what privileges I have as a white male. Even those at the epicentre of the white, male, middle-class, London-dominated and Oxbridge educated system must acknowledge there’s a better way. Done right, I think more diversity would mean more readers, more books sold, a more robust industry.

Another big challenge is how writers, whose average income from books continues to decline, can earn enough to keep creating. There is an unrealistic expectation in society that creative work should merely be another form of free content.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

ELKES

I’m editing a collection of flash fiction called All That Is Between Us which will be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in Spring 2019. I’m also working on finishing a short story collection and starting a novel.

INTERVIEWER

What are your 5-10 top tips for writers of flash fiction?

ELKES

  1. Give yourself permission to write crap, then use that freedom to write well.
  2. Read lots of short fiction in collections and online to learn more about what works and what doesn’t
  3. Don’t grab at the first idea for a story, let things brew for just a little while longer.
  4. Write hot, edit cold
  5. Ignore lists of top tips for short fiction writers and write whatever feels risky and surprises you.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

ELKES

Instagram and Twitter allow this:  #Thewomandreamedofstrollingdampwintermeadowswithherlatehusbandbefore wakingtofindherloverwashingherfeet

 

 

Creatives in profile: interview with Ian Sansom

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Ian Sansom is the author of the popular Mobile Library Mystery Series. He is also a frequent contributor and critic for The Guardian, The Daily Telegraph, The London Review of Books, and The Spectator. He is a regular broadcaster on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4.

Previously described by Alex Pryce as an author happy to make “mischief”, his latest book, December Stories I, is full of Sansom’s trademark humour – pulling together a rich collage of different lives lived over the month of December into something funny and sad, lovely and above all else utterly empathetic.

Nothing in the Rulebook caught up with Sansom to speak about his new book, his collaboration with the fantastic folk at No Alibis Press, and everything else in between.

INTERVIEWER

Tell me about yourself, where you live and your background/lifestyle

SANSOM

I am a small, round, bearded, middle-aged man. I live – as I have done for most of my adult life – in a remote corner of the UK which currently has no functioning government.

INTERVIEWER

Has writing always been your first love, or do you have another passion?

SANSOM

I don’t think ‘love’ or ‘passion’ are quite the words I would use. Flann O’Brien described writing as a form of vocational malfunction. For me that’s probably closer to the truth.

INTERVIEWER

Who inspires you?

SANSOM

In literary terms, I tend to admire writers who manage simply to keep going, despite all the odds. In personal terms, I have been blessed with many friends and colleagues who have been a great source of encouragement and inspiration.

INTERVIEWER

Who were your early teachers?

SANSOM

Alas, no pipe-lighting dominee lit my way.

INTERVIEWER

What does the term ‘writer’ mean to you?

SANSOM

A writer is someone who writes.

INTERVIEWER

Your latest book, December Stories I, exposes the idiosyncrasies and contradictions of human nature and relationships that the festive period brings to light. Of course, these contradictions are not unique to our species during only the month of December; but they do appear to be heightened. Why do you think that is?

SANSOM

In a word: proximity. The coming together of people – or the lack of coming together.

INTERVIEWER

Do you personally identify with any of the characters in the short pieces contained within December Stories I?

SANSOM

Madame Bovary, c’est moi. I’m everyone and no one.

INTERVIEWER

On a scale of Tiny Tim to Ebenezer Scrooge, where would you place yourself during the run up to Christmas and New Year?

SANSOM

Tiny Tim, if only for his plaintive cry, ‘God bless us, every one!’

INTERVIEWER

What research (if any) do you conduct before setting out on a new writing project?

SANSOM

Like most writers, I am incredibly lazy and try to avoid all research if at all possible. If it’s necessary, I will do what’s necessary.

INTERVIEWER

You collaborated with No Alibis Press to bring December Stories I to life. How important, for you, is the relationship between a writer and their publisher?

SANSOM

We depend on each other entirely. In another life, I’d maybe come back as a publisher, to see what the relationship is like from the other perspective.

INTERVIEWER

During a period of the year in which everyone is bombarded with messages urging them to consume more and more goods, food and services, it can feel harder and harder to take time out to read something that doesn’t make December out to be one long glorious month of consumerism. How important is it, do you think, for writers and creatives to try and step away from the background noise of advertising and product placement? And what would be on your Christmas reading list?

SANSOM

What is it that Walter Benjamin writes in ‘One-Way Street’: ‘What, in the end, makes advertisements so superior to criticism? Not what the moving neon sign says – but the fiery pool reflecting it in the asphalt.

The only book I read every year at Christmas is Delia Smith’s Christmas – it’s excellent.

INTERVIEWER

Do you feel any ethical responsibility as a writer?

SANSOM

It is clear that ethics cannot be put into words.

Ethics is transcendental.

(Ethics and aesthetics are one and the same.)

Lugwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, trans. D.F. Pears and B. F. McGuiness (1961)

INTERVIEWER

You’ve previously asked whether paper can survive in the digital age. But in an age of e-readers and e-zines; do you ever feel that the traditional printed book may be at risk of disappearing? Or will they simply evolve?

SANSOM

Everything changes. Everything evolves.

INTERVIEWER

Seneca once wrote that the “reading of many authors and books of every sort may tend to make you discursive and unsteady.” And advised that “You must linger among a limited number of master thinkers, and digest their works, if you would derive ideas which shall win firm hold in your mind.” When you read, do you find it helpful to linger only among a select few authors – or do you think it better to read as widely and voraciously as possible?

SANSOM

Personally, I am omnivorous.

INTERVIEWER

Could you tell us a little about some of the future projects you’re working on?

SANSOM

This year I am publishing 3 books: a novel, a work of non-fiction, and a collection of short stories. Plus all of the usual para-literary activities.

INTERVIEWER

Could you write us a story in 6 words?

SANSOM

Six words was not nearly enough.

Get more Samson here: watch the video of the author reading an excerpt from his latest book, December Stories I.

A novelist’s guide to waiting

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The type of intensive, cloistered work of writers can lend itself to solitude. Sometimes, this can be accompanied by activity – such as running  – but it can also be just as much about stillness. In this article, author Tim Leach reflects upon the art of waiting; of embracing these moments of stillness to help aid your writing.

The art of the novelist is the art of waiting. Patience. Stillness. Not the lightning flash of inspiration, but in the waiting for the lightning.

Most of my writing time is spent waiting. Waiting before the half empty page, staring at one of the endless problems to be solved. A minute passes, another and another. Half an hour, perhaps even an hour since last a word was typed. A frightening boredom sets in and seeks to drive me from the chair, to do anything but keep still, hold on. Then a sudden flurry of fingers on the keys, the words springing to the page, the problem solved. And then the next problem, and once more, the waiting.

There is passion in this still, quiet patience. “Am I in love? –yes, since I am waiting,” says Roland Barthes. “The lover’s fatal identity is precisely this: I am the one who waits.” It can have the quality of trance or prayer. And there is courage in waiting too, for learn it well enough and you may outlast anything.

Outlast loneliness, for if one has mastered time what is there to fear from the absence of love? Wait out sadness, for the black waters always recede if you can be patient enough for the turning of the tide. And those other more murderous thoughts that circle the mind like jackals – they too must sleep, if you can stare them down for long enough. The hand that quests for the razor grows old and idle, the rattle of the pill bottle fades to silence, the eye that looks hungrily to high places and the third rail droops and grows heavy.

If writing has taught me anything, it is how to wait. It has been a year of hard waiting. I’ve waited with people and for people, waited out a draft of a book, waited out a madness too. Everything is begun and nothing is finished, much more is broken than is fixed.

But that does not matter. “In this there is no measuring with time, a year doesn’t matter, and ten years are nothing,” says Rilke, because poets know how to wait, too.

I hear the tick of the clock and the sound of the sea, and that particular silence in the concert hall before the pianist first lays their hands upon the keys. I am waiting.

About the author

Tim Leach

Tim Leach is a historical fiction author and creative writing teacher. His first novel, The Last King of Lydia, was published by Atlantic Books in Spring 2013, and has been longlisted for the Dylan Thomas Prize. A sequel, The King and the Slave‘, was published in 2014. His most recent novel, Smile of the Wolf  was published in 2018. He teaches creative writing at the University of Warwick, and he lives in Sheffield.

Found in the Crowd – the case for crowdfunding anthologies

Authors, publishers and literary journals are all finding new ways of connecting directly to their readers – and their wallets – on online platforms such as Kickstarter. In this article, Dan Coxon examines how the social financing can bring new book ideas to life. 

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Recently there has been a lot of chatter about the future of the short story. Some feel that we’re seeing a resurgence of the short form, citing as proof the phenomenal success of George Saunders, or the unlikely appearance of Tom Hanks’s debut collection. Others feel that the popularity of stories has steadily declined in recent years. In his generally positive introduction to The Penguin Book of the British Short Story, even Philip Hensher was forced to admit that ‘reading short stories rewarded by competitions, I was struck by present-tense solitary reflections, often with characters lying on their beds affectlessly pondering… There was nothing there at all, apart from a fervent desire to win £30,000.’

What everyone appears to agree on is that publishers don’t know what to do with short fiction. Occasionally, the larger publishers will humour an established author – Hilary Mantel, Lionel Shriver – by allowing them a collection between the novels, but you’re unlikely to see many debuts. (Hanks is the obvious exception – but there’s no need to explain the marketing decision behind that book.) New authors are finding that only the smaller, independent presses are willing to take a punt on their genius.

The same is also true of anthologies. I’ve now crowdfunded two anthologies on Kickstarter: Being Dad: Short Stories About Fatherhood (Tangent Books), and most recently This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories), a collection of stories inspired by British folklore and local history. Increasingly, independent publishers are turning to crowdfunding as a viable option, and in particular it’s something that seems to be working for the humble anthology. Might there be a future for the short story after all?

In many ways, my experience with Being Dad was typical. Several medium-to-large publishers expressed an interest, but said that anthologies ‘didn’t sell’ (how they would know this when they didn’t actually publish any is one of life’s great mysteries). Eventually, I secured the interest of Bristol-based Tangent Books, who had the foresight to see that this was a book which had both a market and some great stories. There was one proviso: we had to raise the initial costs via crowdfunding.

I’ll admit, at first I was reluctant. There is still an element of resistance to the crowdfunding route, especially among older writers and readers. It’s sometimes seen as being worryingly close to vanity publishing – you go cap-in-hand to your friends and family, beg them for money, and then pay a publisher to print the book. At one end of the scale, this is certainly the case. As in any industry, there are unscrupulous businesses that are only too willing to take your money.

But in all the cases cited here, it wasn’t a matter of funding a book outright via ‘donations’, but rather a means of generating publicity and interest ahead of publication to ensure its success. I find it useful to think of the new crowdfunding model as a kind of inverse marketing: whereas the publicity campaign usually kicks in upon publication, here we did all our marketing in advance. I like to think that most of these people would have bought the book anyway – but by doing it ahead of publication, they helped reduce the risk to both publisher and authors, and therefore made the book possible.

I won’t go into the details here, but suffice it to say that crowdfunding a book is a long and arduous process. What has struck me most forcibly, however, is the interest we have received – and not just from people we knew. Yes, many of my friends backed the books I’ve crowdfunded, for which I’m hugely grateful. But we’ve received pledges from complete strangers from all corners of the globe – some of them extremely generous – and in the final accounting these constituted the vast majority of pledges. With both the books I’ve been involved in, we were able to pre-sell much of the first print run and the projects very quickly went into profit.

My experience is by no means unique. Last year Unsung Stories crowdfunded 2084, an anthology of short stories inspired by George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and they had a resounding success. Their funding goal was reached within eleven hours of the campaign launching, and the final total was almost ten times the original target.

I asked George Sandison at Unsung Stories why they’d decided to crowdfund the book, and this is what he had to say:

‘One of the things an anthology gives you, that a single-author book doesn’t, is a chance to reach the fans of every author involved. Between support from contributors with promoting the launch, and a larger group of people who may be interested in the project, you’ve got a healthy customer base to call on. And one of the things crowdfunding does really well, is get people involved in a project – they get their name in the book, collectible editions, artwork, special stuff they’ll want to keep. So combine those two things and you have a lot of people, who are empowered and made part of the process. Quite literally, they help make the book.’

This is what I’ve found too, and it suggests that there’s a very real business model that’s starting to emerge. Anthologies benefit from having several authors involved, and with their combined fan bases they are able to spread their appeal more widely. Having one or two well-established authors on board can also make it more appealing, especially to an audience that might not have taken a chance on the lesser-known writers.

Of course, it’s not just anthologies that are reaping the benefits of crowdfunding. Independent presses in general are gradually coming to realise its advantages, and many now have a success story to tell. Influx Press crowdfunded their own anthology, The Unreliable Guide to London, which has gone on to receive critical acclaim and was shortlisted for a number of awards. Following that, they also ran a crowdfunding campaign to fund the next year’s publications, which met its target with ease. Dead Ink and Dodo Ink have also turned to crowdfunding to get projects off the ground in recent years, and all are going from strength to strength.

Interestingly, Unbound enjoyed a huge crowdfunded success with Nikesh Shukla’s The Good Immigrant. While this was non-fiction, rather than fiction, it once again suggested that crowdfunding works for multi-author projects. I’ve since been told that Unbound will no longer consider anthologies, a decision that seems to undermine the idea of crowdfunding anthologies as a strong business model. It starts to make sense, however, when you bear in mind that Unbound are now part of the Penguin Random House behemoth. Clearly the mainstream publishing mantra that ‘anthologies don’t sell’ has already seeped through to the Unbounders.

Within the independent field, though, the anthology may actually be thriving, and crowdfunding is looking more and more like the way forward. Yes, short stories are a niche market – but they’re a market nonetheless. By targeting and actively involving readers who have an interest in short fiction, projects like Unsung’s 2084 and This Dreaming Isle are looking remarkably prescient, a glimpse into what the future might hold for anthologists everywhere. Publishers would do well to look to crowdfunding when they’re considering turning an anthology down. The market is still out there – you just have to search for it in the crowd.

About the author of this post

Dan Coxon author picDan Coxon edited the anthologies Being Dad (Tangent Books, 2016) and This Dreaming Isle (Unsung Stories, 2018), and is a contributing editor at The Lonely Crowd. He also edits and publishes a bi-annual journal of weird and eerie fiction, The Shadow Booth. His writing has appeared in SalonPopshotThe Lonely CrowdOpen PenWales Arts ReviewGutterThe Portland Review and Unthology 9 amongst others, and he was long-listed for the Bath Flash Fiction Award 2017. He runs an editing and proofreading business at www.momuseditorial.co.uk, and can be found on Twitter at @dancoxonauthor.

 

T.S. Eliot’s letter of advice to a sixteen year old aspiring writer

“Nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one,” literary giant F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote to his fifteen-year old daughter in 1936. Sixteen years later, an aspiring young author, born in that year, called Alice Quinn reached out to T.S. Eliot – by that point one of the most famous writers in the world – in search of advice and guidance. The sixteen year old asked the poet who masterminded The Wasteland whether he could answer questions about the creative process, and – since nobody just “becomes” a writer – how he himself developed his poetic sensibilities and skills.

While Eliot was not known for responding to fan letters, something about the young woman’s earnest inquiry touched him. His warm, wry response, full of writerly wisdom, may be his most direct statement of advice on writing. It was only ever published in Hockney’s Alphabet — a lovely and perhaps sadly forgotten 1991 charity project raising funds for AIDS research through short essays by famous writers about the letters of the alphabet, each illustrated by artist David Hockney. Eliot’s response to Alice Quinn — the only posthumous contribution to the volume — appears under the letter Q.

Four years after he received the Nobel prize for literature, Eliot writes to the young writer:

Dear Miss Alice Quinn,

I do not often answer letters, because I am too busy; but I liked your letter.

[…]

I cannot tell you how to concentrate, because that is something I have been trying to learn all my life. There are spiritual exercises in concentration, but I am not the person to teach what I am trying to learn. All I know is that if you are interested enough, and care enough, then you concentrate. But nobody can tell you how to start writing. The only good reason for writing is that one has to write. You ask seven questions. No one event in one’s childhood starts one writing: no doubt a number of “events” and other causes. That remains mysterious.

My advice to “up and coming writers” is, don’t write at first for anyone but yourself. It doesn’t matter how many or how few universities one goes to, what matters is what one learns, either at universities or by oneself. My favourite essay, I think, is my essay on Dante, not because I know much about Dante, but because I loved what I wrote about. The Waste Land is my most famous work, and therefore perhaps will prove the most important, but it is not my favourite.”

At one point in the letter, Eliot reflects on an accusation and criticism levied against the poet – that his work is elitist and exclusive. On this question, he reflects:

“I am interested to hear that Kunitz & Haycraft say that I prefer to associate with Nobility and Church Dignitaries, but I like to know every sort of person, including Nobility and Dignitaries. I also like to know Policemen, Plumbers and People.”

He returns to the subject of how one grows equipped to be a writer:

“One does not always need to know a subject very well in order to teach it: what one does need to know is How to Teach Anything. I went to a very good school (which no longer exists) in St. Louis, Missouri, where I was well taught in Latin, Greek, French and elementary Mathematics. Those are the chief subjects worth learning at school; and I am glad that I was well taught in these subjects, instead of having to study such subjects as T.S. Eliot. At the University I studied too many subjects, and mastered none. If you study Latin, Greek, French, Mathematics […] that is the right beginning.

I like living in London, because it is my City, and I am happier there than anywhere else.

With best wishes,

T.S. Eliot”

Complement T.S. Eliot’s timeless wisdom with some of our collected writing tips; for writers, from writers.

Why do we pay any attention to apparent ‘rules’ for writing?

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Elmore Leanoard on writing rules: illustration by Joe Cardiello 

If there is one feature of humankind that clearly defines our civilisation, it is, perhaps, the written word. All of human imagination can be found within the walls of our libraries – the perfect sanctuaries for books – as written language has emerged as the perfect means of cataloguing our thoughts, our discourse and our histories.

While other species of animals have been shown to communicate with one another, it is our ability to form complex language that sets us apart. This in itself is one of the things that unifies us and brings us together as human beings, regardless of our background or birthright: Everywhere on earth, human languages use the same kinds of grammatical machinery, such as nouns, verbs, auxiliaries and agreement.

Yet despite these defining features of our language, the way in which they are used has never been fully formalised. Of course, there have been prescriptive rules of how to “write well” and “speak properly” for generations; yet how each individual writes and speaks is unique to them.

Despite the obvious idiosyncrasies innately tied to the way one writes and expresses themselves, there has never been a shortage of people seeking advice on writing – nor of people looking to share their tips and “rules”.

Perhaps this is because, as Harvard psycholinguist Steven Pinker wrote in his wonderful modern guide to style, “A crisp sentence, an arresting metaphor, a witty aside, an elegant turn of phrase are among life’s greatest pleasures.”

And it is, of course, a natural human inclination to find ways to improve oneself, particularly in the way we express ourselves. Quite simply, this is because human beings want to be heard and understood by others.

It is the way in which we approach this self-improvement that is interesting, as it proves what many of us no doubt suspected all along: that the rules and advice people give on how to become a better writer or a better communicator are just as unique and idiosyncratic as the writing or speaking styles they seek to improve.

Take the approaches of two great writers as one example here. On the one hand, the late, great, David Foster Wallace advises a deep studying of one’s use of language, practically applying the rules of a faithful usage dictionary to ensure your writing is applied correctly in meticulous detail:

“Get a usage dictionary… you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive… For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, and a thesaurus.”

On the other hand, F. Scott Fitzgerald describes good writing as something that comes naturally, from deep inside us – and is expressed through our pens (or typewriters, or laptops) in a way that cannot be overthought:

“If you have anything to say, anything you feel nobody has ever said before, you have got to feel it so desperately that you will find some way to say it that nobody has ever found before, so that the thing you have to say and the way of saying it blend as one matter—as indissolubly as if they were conceived together.”

What this all teaches us is that language and writing can be ever truly mastered, because they are not static things bound by real rules; but rather living and ephemeral, ever evolving over the course of time. At any moment in time a style of writing could be dying out, and, simultaneously, another may be born. This is because language is defined not by rules of syntax or grammar; but by the human mind that creates it.

Pixar offers free course on the art of storytelling

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“Simplify. Focus. Combine characters. Hop over detours. You’ll feel like you’re losing valuable stuff but it sets you free.”

So goes one of Pixar’s 22 excellent writing tips and guidance on how to tell a good story (full list available online). It is a resource much loved by writers, and it’s easy to see why. They are lessons learned by some of the masters of storytelling: Pixar, after all, has been consistently creating world-class movies with gripping narratives since 1995, when it released the masterful Toy Story.

Writers can now look to gain even more insight and advice from the creative studio, which is now offering a free course through Khan Academy that can help you find the kind of stories you want to tell – and help you tell them better.

The “Art of Storytelling” is the latest instalment in a series of free courses from the studio called “Pixar in a Box.” It discusses ways to build worlds and characters, how to make sure your stories reflect your unique perspective, along with other relevant advice.

Pixar’s older courses are also still available on the educational website if you want to learn more about animation, colours in films and environment and character modelling. Of course, if you’d rather learn about something else, you merely need to browse other areas of Khan Academy. The famous online education platform has an enormous catalogue of lessons and is available as an Android and an iOS app.

 

On writing: the daily word counts of famous authors

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Scott Fitzgerald once wrote to a close family friend and aspiring young writer: “nobody ever became a writer just by wanting to be one”. It takes time, and effort. You have to put the hours in. You have to actually, well, write (surprising, huh?).

We’ve previously asked whether there is such a thing as the ‘perfect’ daily routine for writing. But if there is no such thing as an average writing day, is there any guidance on how much you should be at least aiming to write as you start to pen that epic poem or finally look to finish that novel you’ve been working on?

R.F. Delderfield, the English author of family sagas, wrote 33 pages each day, and he wrote until four o’clock in the afternoon. If he finished a novel at three o’clock, he rolled a clean sheet of paper into his typewriter, and began the next novel, and worked until quitting time.  He credited a daily swim in the English Channel for his prodigious output.

Of course, not all of us are R.F. Delderfield. Not all of us write family sagas. And not all of us have ready access to the English Channel for our regular swimming sessions. Indeed, with author’s incomes collapsing to near ‘abject’ levels, many writers are increasingly facing more challenging difficulties in finding the time to meet their word output targets.

So what about other writers? How many words do they (or did they, in some cases) write each day? We’ve put together a list of the daily word counts of 20 famous authors, which you can check out here below.

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Of course, there’s a problem with just taking a writer’s word counts and trying to deduce too much insight from them. The authors in the above list all write in different styles and genres – using different tools and in different conditions from one another. Not all writers monitor their word count – and others would advise against it; after all, the adage ‘quality, not quantity’ is surely rarely more applicable than when used in relation to writing.

Indeed, some writers – who write very well – will produce a great quantity of work that is then stripped back so much that to try and say how many words were actually produced per day over the course of any writing project is nigh impossible. Consider Philip Roth, for example, who said in his interview with the Paris Review that “I often have to write a hundred pages or more before there’s a paragraph that’s alive.”

Or there’s James Joyce, who took seventeen years to write Finnegan’s Wake.

On the point of Joyce, there’s a good Stephen King joke on the subject of his word count:

“A friend came to visit James Joyce one day and found the great man sprawled across his writing desk in a posture of utter despair.

James, what’s wrong?’ the friend asked. ‘Is it the work?’

Joyce indicated assent without even raising his head to look at his friend. Of course it was the work; isn’t it always?

How many words did you get today?’ the friend pursued.

Joyce (still in despair, still sprawled facedown on his desk): ‘Seven.’

Seven? But James… that’s good, at least for you.’

Yes,’ Joyce said, finally looking up. ‘I suppose it is… but I don’t know what order they go in!”

This joke echoes the sentiment of a famous story about Gustave Flaubert, in which his bohemian friends stopped by his house one day, and invited him to go out for a few days of debauchery (who wouldn’t?!). Flaubert declined, saying he had to write, so they went off and returned a few days later. (A good solid length of debauching, one would say). “How did your writing go?” they asked once they returned. “Fantastic!” Flaubert replied. “I put the semicolon back in.”

So it’s important to take each of the writer’s word counts with a pinch of salt – in that, just because they are writing x amount of words; it doesn’t mean you should be, too.

With that in mind, it can still be an interesting work of self-evaluation to consider how many words you write each day. Are you as prolific of Crichton or more careful with your words like Hemingway or Dorothy Parker? Let us know in the comments below!

 

Hilary Mantel’s ten rules for writing

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Hilary Mantel – photography by Chris Boland. Image via Flickr CC.  

In 2010, inspired by Elmore Leonard’s 10 Rules of Writing, The Guardian asked authors for their personal lists of dos and don’ts. We’ve gone through the whole list and, week by week, will be bringing you the timeless counsel of the great writers of the 20th and 21stcenturies.

Last time out we brought you the sagely advice of the one and only A.L. Kennedy, who reminded us of the importance of humility in writing, and also having the willingness to defend your own work.

We’ve also featured Zadie Smith’s exquisite balance of the practical, the philosophical, and the poetic. Then there’s Neil Gaiman’s timeless counsel on writing, which complements the writing commandments of Jonathan Franzen, as well as the wise decree of Margaret Atwood. Today, we’re pleased to feature the writing advice from Booker Prize winning author Hilary Mantel. Enjoy!

 

  1. Are you serious about this? Then get an accountant.
  2. Read Becoming a Writer, by Dorothea Brande. Then do what it says, including the tasks you think are impossible. You will particularly hate the advice to write first thing in the morning, but if you can manage it, it might well be the best thing you ever do for yourself. This book is about becoming a writer from the inside out. Many later advice manuals derive from it. You don’t ­really need any others, though if you want to boost your confidence, “how to” books seldom do any harm. You can kick-start a whole book with some little writing exercise.
  3. Write a book you’d like to read. If you wouldn’t read it, why would anybody else? Don’t write for a perceived audience or market. It may well have vanished by the time your book’s ready.
  4. If you have a good story idea, don’t assume it must form a prose narrative. It may work better as a play, a screenplay or a poem. Be flexible.
  5. Be aware that anything that appears before “Chapter One” may be skipped. Don’t put your vital clue there.
  6. First paragraphs can often be struck out. Are you performing a haka, or just shuffling your feet?
  7. Concentrate your narrative energy on the point of change. This is especially important for historical fiction. When your character is new to a place, or things alter around them, that’s the point to step back and fill in the details of their world. People don’t notice their everyday surroundings and daily routine, so when writers describe them it can sound as if they’re trying too hard to instruct the reader.
  8. Description must work for its place. It can’t be simply ornamental. It ­usually works best if it has a human element; it is more effective if it comes from an implied viewpoint, rather than from the eye of God. If description is coloured by the viewpoint of the character who is doing the noticing, it becomes, in effect, part of character definition and part of the action.
  9. If you get stuck, get away from your desk. Take a walk, take a bath, go to sleep, make a pie, draw, listen to ­music, meditate, exercise; whatever you do, don’t just stick there scowling at the problem. But don’t make telephone calls or go to a party; if you do, other people’s words will pour in where your lost words should be. Open a gap for them, create a space. Be patient.
  10. Be ready for anything. Each new story has different demands and may throw up reasons to break these and all other rules. Except number one: you can’t give your soul to literature if you’re thinking about income tax.

 

 

For more excellent wisdom on writing, consider the excellent musings of ground-breaking Scottish author, Iain Maloney; and complement that with some priceless advice from Kurt Vonnegut, alongside our compendium of writing advice from some of the greatest authors.

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