Monday, 19 December 2011

Vaclav Havel 1936 - 2011: For One Night Only

By Catriona Troth 

This is the story of a play which – for over twenty years – saw just one performance. A play written and rehearsed in secret. An act of defiance against a totalitarian state that almost (but not quite) succeeded. The story of The Beggar’s Opera, by Václav Havel, sometime president of the Czech Republic.

In 1968, when the Soviet tanks rolled into Prague and the process of so-called ‘normalisation’ began, Havel was already a successful playwright. But as the Communist Party reestablished its position of absolute power, he along with thousands of others became a ‘non-person’. His books were removed from library shelves, his plays could no longer be performed and his name effectively vanished from public life.

Havel wrote The Beggar’s Opera in 1968, but it was four years later that he and his friend Andrej Krob concocted a plan to stage it. No professional theatre dared touch it and any professional actor taking part would risk their career. So through a network of friends, they assembled an amateur company of teachers and students, white-collar workers and mechanics. Copies of the play were typed out on the tissue-thin paper used for samizdat publications and passed round in secret. Rehearsals took place in people’s homes – never in the same place twice to avoid arousing suspicion. They called themselves ‘The Theatre on the Move’.

Rehearsing the play was one thing; putting it on in public was another matter. After two years of working in secret, they approached a ‘House of Culture’ in an obscure suburb of Prague and requested permission to put on a play.

If the title, The Beggar’s Opera, sounds familiar, then that’s no coincidence. This is the same story of Macheath, Peachum and Lockett first written by John Gray in 18th Century England, then reimagined by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weil as The Threepenny Opera – and now given another twist in post-’68 Czechoslovakia. By calling it The Beggar’s Opera, they were able to persuade the authorities that this was simply a translation of an English classic, adapted slightly to remove the musical numbers. So effective had the state’s erasure of Havel’s name been that the company didn’t even hide his involvement: the minor officials in this out of the way suburb had never heard of him. Permission was granted, provided the performance was not advertised and no charge was made for admission.

Three hundred trusted friends, secretly invited to view the play, first had to find their way to the House of Culture in Horní Pŏcernice. Imagine a cross between a school auditorium and one of those characterless pubs plonked down in the middle of housing estates in the ‘70s. A place avoided by the locals because most of the entertainment provided was thinly disguised propaganda. An hour before the play began, half the audience were driving round in circles, not daring to ask for directions for fear of giving the game away to the authorities.

Just as the play was due to start, it seemed as if their worst fears had been realised. A man came out onto the stage. He lit a cigarette and stood there, blowing smoke rings out over the audience, his eyes travelling over their faces as if memorising them. The audience held its collective breath, fear catching in their throats. But it was a coup de théâtre: the man was Andrej Krob, Havel’s friend and the director of the play, reminding everyone – audience and actors alike – that they were always being watched.

But not that evening. No secret service men were in the audience or outside, taking note of car registrations. It seemed as if the whole venture had been a resounding success. The play had been put on, under the nose of the authorities, and they had got away with it. The set was disassembled and the troupe retired to the Little Bears pub in the centre of Prague to celebrate. A second performance was planned for a week later. But their downfall came, not from spies and traitors within Czechoslovakia, but from their allies in the West.

An eyewitness account of the play’s performance was broadcast on Radio Free Europe out of Zurich, and then published in Der Spiegel. The authorities were furious, but to some extent their hands were tied. The Warsaw Pact countries had just signed the Helsinki Accord which, among other things, guaranteed a certain degree of respect for human rights. They could not be seen to respond too ruthlessly to the single performance of an obscure play. So reprisals against the members of the Theatre on the Move had to be discreet. No one was thrown in gaol or sent away to a camp. But passports and driving licences were revoked. Jobs, including Krob’s, were mysteriously ‘restructured’ out of existence. Children of participants failed to find places at university. Even people who were merely suspected of participation suffered. Havel’s play was not performed again in the Czech Republic until after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

So what was it about this play that so threatened the Czech regime? After all, the story is familiar enough. Macheath the gallant highwayman, seducing the daughters of a fence and a gaoler, playing off the fathers against each other and dodging an ignominious fate at the end of a rope. But in Havel’s hands, it becomes an indictment of the conditions of living under a totalitarian state.

Aynsley Moorhouse has compared the totalitarian state to Jeremy Bentham’s design of the Panopticon: the ideal prison where each prisoner is under constant observation from every angle. And this, Havel argued, creates a situation where the truth is constantly distorted, where every action is done for appearance only and nothing can be taken at face value. In his essay, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, Havel cites the example of the greengrocer who puts a sign in his window that reads ‘Workers of the World, Unite!’ He does it, not because he believes in international socialist revolution, but because he fears the consequences of not appearing to believe in it. And this constant need to dissemble, Havel believes, causes people to shrivel from within until they lose their humanity altogether.

In Havel’s play, every character appears to be constantly and eloquently justifying their own actions – but nothing they say can be trusted or taken at face value. When, in a final twist unique to Havel’s version, the policeman Lockett is ‘revealed’ to be a criminal who has taken control, first of the police force and now of the whole criminal underworld, the audience is left to guess that he, too, may be the victim of a giant self-deception.

The message of Havel’s writing, and what made him so dangerous, was not simply ‘stop believing what you are told’ (few people did) but ‘stop pretending to believe’. Act like human beings again. Take the sign out of your window and face the consequences of being honest.

Maybe it’s a lesson we could all learn.

• Václav Havel, The Beggar’s Opera, (translated by Paul Wilson), Cornell Press, 2001
• Paul Steiner: Introduction the The Beggar’s Opera, Cornell Press, 2001
• Václav Havel, ‘The Power of the Powerless’, 1978
• Aynsley Moorhouse, ‘Reframing the Theatrical Event: Václav Havel’s The Beggar’s Opera’, Transverse Journal, 2010

For One Night Only was originally published in the December 2011 edition of Words with JAM.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Christmas Podcast

Yes! Words with Jam has its first Christmas Podcast. But being WWJ, we couldn't just go for the traditional sleigh bells and tinsel approach. Instead we bring you Santa Never Made It, by Liza Perrat, read by the author.

Christmas Day, 1974.

Australians woke to the news that tropical cyclone Tracy had devastated the town of Darwin in Northern Territory. 71 people were dead and over 70% of Darwin's buildings destroyed.

But for 12 year old Tracy, the storm was to have quite different consequences.

Please go and have a listen - and if you enjoy it, don't forget to click the 'like' button before you leave!

Saturday, 10 December 2011

Paulo Coelho

An exclusive interview with JJ Marsh

About Paulo

Born in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, in 1947, Paulo Coelho chose his career early. As a teenager, he decided he would become a writer. And he did. But it took a while. Escaping a mental institution three times after being committed by his parents, dropping out of law school and becoming a travelling hippie, gaining respect as a songwriter, and being arrested and tortured by the military regime all came first.
He was forty years old when he experienced an epiphany on the Santiago de Compostela Trail, which led to his book, The Pilgrimage. The following year, 1988, he wrote The Alchemist, which has sold more than 65 million copies worldwide and has been translated into 71 languages. He has published 29 books, including The Devil and Miss Prym, Veronika Decides to Die, and Eleven Minutes, and sold over 100 millions copies of his work. His latest, Aleph, came out in English in September this year.
Paulo is an outspoken activist for peace and social justice, and also supports the free distribution of his work. He and his wife Christina split their time between Rio de Janeiro, and France.

Your books concern ordinary people, individuals who do or experience something extraordinary. How do you feel about the culture of celebrity?

There are two questions in one. As for the first part: everybody may experience the extraordinary at any given moment in life – if he or she knows where to go, and it paying attention to what is happening. St John illustrates the most frustrating facet of the human condition: our persistent desire for that which is unattainable that we carry in our soul. 

But the fact that you know your dreams is not enough. You have to think how to manifest your dreams and be brave enough to pay the price of it. You have to learn how to own your mistakes; otherwise your mistakes own you. I think that the only advice that I can give is this: nurture intuition instead of seeking for literary rules. Tell a story instead of trying to impress your peers with style and grammatical exercises.  It’s more important to keep on questioning than to find answers.

As for the second part of your question: I wrote an entire book about the culture of celebrity (The Winner Stands Alone). But if I have to summarize it, I would say: the trap of celebrity is when you start behaving that you are what people think you are. From this moment on, you are lost.

How far do your experiences as a songwriter  influence your writing?

By writing lyrics to songs, I learned how to be direct without being superficial.

Someone recently told me that Veronika Decides To Die should be compulsory reading for all teenagers. Do you agree?

No. The message in Veronika Decides To Die is that: dare to be different. You are unique, and you have to accept you as you are, instead of trying to repeat other people’s destinies or patterns. Insanity is to behave like someone that you are not. Normality is the capacity to express your feelings. From the moment that you don’t fear to share your heart, you are a free person.  You can speak the truth. And this is the beauty of truth: whether it is bad or good, it is liberating.

However, this must be a choice, and the book (either Veronika or any other book on this subject) must reach the reader when he/she is ready to face the challenges that come with freedom.

The meditations on the Seven Deadly Sins, to accompany The Witch of Portobello, references many different faiths and moral systems. How much can we learn from an open mind towards other beliefs?
People who accept that God is more than rules and commandments, and try to dwell into the adoration of beauty and passion, this feminine energy, are called “witches”. But in fact, this is a person that is capable of letting  intuition take hold of his/her actions, who communes with the environment, who isn’t afraid of facing challenges.

Recently I was reading Karen Armstrong’s book on the Prophet (Muhammad, Harper Collins), and there is a part that she mentions: “each recitation began with the invocation: In the name of Allah, the Compassionate (al-Rahman), and the Merciful (al-Rahim)…the divine names Al-Rahman and al-Rahim are not only grammatically feminine, but related etymologically to the word for womb.”

I am not an expert in Arabic etymology, but I believe that Mrs. Armstrong is. The Witch of Portobello  explores this Compassion and this Mercy, as I see from my perspective. I felt the need to question why society had tried to lock away the feminine side. The character of Athena, with her freedom and courage, was my way to tackle this subject and to unveil the shackles of dogma.

I think, that despite all the fanaticisms, we are seeing the beginning of an era where feminine values, such as generosity and tolerance, are surfacing again.

Which, in your view, is the worst of the Deadly Sins? Why?

Envy. I don’t think I need to elaborate.

Most writers try to protect their work being distributed for free. But I was delighted to discover you actively sought to share files with your readers via the Internet. Why?

In the former Soviet Union, in the late 1950s and 60s, many books that questioned the political system began to be circulated privately in mimeographed form. Their authors never earned a penny in royalties. On the contrary, they were persecuted, denounced in the official press, and sent into exile in the notorious Siberian gulags. Yet still they continued to write.

Why? Because they needed to share what they were feeling. From the Gospels to political manifestos, literature has allowed ideas to travel and even to change the world.

I have nothing against people earning money from their books; that’s how I make my living.
But look at what’s happening now: the publishing industry is trying to have laws brought in against ‘intellectual piracy’. Depending on the country, the ‘pirate’ – that is, the person disseminating art on the Internet – could end up in jail.

And how do I feel about this? As an author, I should be defending ‘intellectual property’, but I’m not. In 1999, when I was first published in Russia (with a print-run of 3,000), the country was suffering a severe paper shortage. By chance, I discovered a ‘pirate’ edition of The Alchemist and posted it on my web page. A year later, when the crisis was resolved, I sold 10,000 copies of the print edition. By 2002, I had sold a million copies in Russia, and I have now sold 12 million.

When I travelled across Russia by train, I met several people who told me that they had first discovered my work through the ‘pirated’ edition I posted on my website. Nowadays, I run a ‘Pirate Coelho’ website, giving links to any books of mine that are available on file-sharing sites. And my sales continue to grow – nearly 140 million. When you’ve eaten an orange, you have to go back to the shop to buy another. In that case, it makes sense to pay on the spot. With an object of art, you’re not buying paper, ink, paintbrush, canvas or musical notes, but the idea born out of a combination of those products.

‘Pirating’ can act as an introduction to an artist’s work. If you like his or her idea, then you will want to have it in your house; a good idea doesn’t need protection.

As a representative of the UN, involved with UNESCO campaigns including combatting violence against woman, a supporter of Amnesty International and the founder of your own Paulo Coelho Institute, do you see yourself as a political person?

One of the few bridges left intact today is the cultural one, and at the moment nobody is capable of understanding each other because there are a lot of prejudices going on around the world. When people talk about the clashes of civilizations, I think it is just an invention of the media. I don’t think there are any clashes. I may not understand the political system or economics, but I understand things through stories. And by extension, every artist is a political person.

As for the Paulo Coelho Institute: the social situation here in Brazil is complicated; the disparity between the rich and the poor is very big. The Brazilian government is powerless with regard to the social situation of Brazil. But I have to resist the temptation to name those responsible for it and apportion blame solely on our government. Politicians are concerned mostly only about special things and lose sight of their real tasks, especially their election promises. As a Brazilian, I am also responsible for the situation in my country. That’s why I try to support children in Rio de Janeiro with my Paulo Coelho Foundation. I cannot change or improve Brazil, but I can help the people in my surroundings.

You’re often quoted as saying you write with only one reader in mind – yourself. In Aleph, you take the reader with you on a very personal journey. How did that affect the writing of this book?

Writing is magic. Pure magic. A powerful moment, when I look into my soul, even if it’s only for ten seconds, and  I can have a glimpse of my dark and bright sides  Thoughts vibrate, thoughts transfer to my fingers.  I never in my life had this blank screen syndrome. All I need to do is to get rid of the notion of time.

And this is the central idea of Aleph. While writing it, I was describing an experience that took place four years ago, and understanding it for the first time. When I finished and published the book, the reader could understand that this magic may be manifested in anything we do in life.

What would be your English translation of the word saudades?

Portuguese speaking people used to be proud that this word has no translation. But I believe it has. It can be “to long for”, or in a specific case, to be “home sick”, etc. And to make it simpler, I would say: “to miss (something or someone)”.

Interviews often show more of the interviewer than the interviewee. What question(s) would you want to ask our readers, all of whom are writers?

Writing is a socially acceptable form of getting naked in public. Are you taking off your clothes?

Paulo Coelho - in his readers’ words ...

He relates to real life and to journeys. He relates to people ~ Eleven Minutes is a powerful and beautiful work. I felt the author understood me ~ He sends you on a journey to (re-)discover a certain facet of life. Sometimes he succeeds and sometimes he doesn't. But when he touches you, he does so deeply ~ You can align your own existence to his characters ~ His books are happy books. They’re easy to read but take much, much longer to think about ~ He speaks to people, he’s trying to answer some questions. He’s not place specific, so it’s applicable to all of us ~ His work is for thinkers. He makes you thoughtful ~ You can read his work at different times of your life and get different things from it ~ His work makes you rethink things, refocus on your aims and gives you confidence ~ It’s open to whatever you want it to be and I think that’s the global appeal of it. It means one thing to one person and something very different to another ~ I can talk about him to everyone. Older people, teenagers, my Mum and the bloke in the bookshop. Everyone likes to share Paulo ~ I always find a point in his books where I stop and say, that’s a really good point ~ If you have an open mind and are willing to believe in strange things, you’ll enjoy it ~ He’s a guide for the journey of life ~ I like all the characters and I want them to get where they want to go ~ I’m not spiritual or religious, but I got something important out of The Alchemist ~ He lifts me and gives me hope.

Strutting and Fretting Upon the Stage

Description and Scene Setting with Dan Holloway

You walk into the theatre, find your seat, climb over your fellow playgoers to get to it, settle in, open your naughty little bag of truffles, check your interval drinks order. The house lights go down; your heart begins to beat a little faster, the curtain rises and the stage is illuminated. You watch, initially in hope but with increasing disinterest, as stagehands manipulate sets and carry on props. Minutes drag by and there’s not an actor in sight. No-one speaks any lines, no music plays, though perhaps the lights are adjusted occasionally as the technicians test them for the forthcoming show. The show you’ve paid to see, but where is it? You’re already half way through your truffles and nothing has happened. At this rate, you’ll have fallen asleep under the influence of your interval gin long before it does. You tell yourself you’ll finish the truffles and then, unless something changes, you’ll leave.

The moral of this story? Whatever you do, avoid beginning your novel with a long passage of description.
To extend the theatrical metaphor perhaps a little further than I should, of course the scene must be set for the actors to perform, but the mechanics of this will be done largely in advance of the audience arriving and adjustments will be made discreetly, so as not to distract attention from the action of the play. The novelist should take the same approach. A novel is about character, conflict and resolution. Its stuff is that of emotional exposition and dramatic confrontation. Like plays, novels at their best offer catharsis. When all this is working, audiences scarcely notice the backdrop.

Of course, they would notice immediately if there was no backdrop at all, or if the scenery somehow failed to match the action being played out within it. The descriptive element of the novel is, therefore, as important as all its other components, but it must be managed with subtlety and discretion, so that readers only notice it when it has a contribution to make to the development of character, plot or theme. If, for example, your protagonist is a mountaineer or an interior decorator, their surroundings will be integral to their characterisation and, very possibly, to the development of your plot. If you are writing a murder mystery, detailed descriptions of the crime scene will be necessary to help both the police and the reader work out whodunit.

As a general rule, however, scene-setting should be unobtrusive. Just as, in life, our brains tend to notice and process only what they need in order for us to walk across a road without getting run over, or recognise a work colleague in a crowded canteen, or decide whether or not a particular outfit suits us, so, in fiction, you should be selective in what you describe. This will be conditioned by what will come to the notice of characters in given situations. If your heroine walks into a bar, for example, and stumbles across her husband snogging his secretary, she is unlikely to notice the bar’s decor, or the girl in the corner fixing her lipstick. She might, out of the corner of her eye, register the man in a lumberjack shirt whose gigantic paw is curled around a cocktail with an umbrella in it, because that is outside the range of conventional expectation. Mostly, however, she will be focused on the erring husband and secretary, and on the interior landscape this opens up inside her.

What do I mean by description? Obviously, it refers to what we see. We live, now, in an intensely visual culture. Images come at us from every angle, from advertising hoardings and the backs of cereal packets, from TV, video games, the cinema. Even flagship radio programmes are supported by visual imagery broadcast on websites. In the UK we are, apparently, the most photographed people in the world because of the amount of CCTV coverage of our public spaces. The world over, we use the cameras in our phones to record images of everything from baby’s first steps to the last breath of anti-government protestors in Syria or the victims of natural disasters in Haiti or Japan.

We are so overwhelmed by visual imagery that it is easy to forget that descriptive writing must include all the senses – hearing, smell, taste and touch as well as sight. Different senses take priority in different kinds of scenes, and may be used in counterpoint to one another to suggest the complexity of the sensual world. If, for example, you give a visual description of a rural idyll – a meadow full of wild flowers, cattle drinking at a stream, blue sky, birdsong – but then add the pungent aroma of a rotting sheep carcass, you immediately qualify the overall effect. You undermine your readers’ initial expectations and remind them that every paradise has its cost. If you are using a busy cityscape as a setting, you can achieve a powerfully surreal effect by leaving out sound altogether, loud noise being, possibly, the most prevalent sensual experience of this environment.

When you describe your settings, even in realist fiction, you manipulate your characters’ surroundings in order to achieve certain effects. This is perhaps best illustrated with reference to genre fiction. An exercise I often use with students is to ask them to write a brief scene – a couple’s car breaks down in the middle of nowhere – in the language of different genres. Scene-setting is one of the best and easiest ways of flagging up the different genres. Clearly, descriptions will differ greatly between a romance and a gothic horror, a police procedural and a western. Even though the setting may be identical, the demands of the genre call different aspects of it to prominence. In a romance, you might make use of senses of smell and touch as much as sight. In a horror, perhaps the sounds of hooting owls or creaking floorboards may be prioritised.

While it is important to remember that all the senses are available to you – and you may even invent new ones if you’re writing scifi or fantasy – do not try to use every one in every scene. The power of the opening of A La Recherche du Temps Perdu is its focus on a single detail – the smell of baking madeleines - which triggers the memories of which the rest of the work is composed.

It is also vital that your descriptive writing is truthful. Its terms cannot exceed what is available to you in your fictional world. If that world is contiguous with Planet Earth as we know it, the sea cannot be made of fresh water and human skin will always taste, at least partly, of salt. Mammals are warm and fish cold. There is but one moon and it isn’t purple. Truthfulness, however, extends deeper than this. Excellent descriptive writing reveals the essence of its subject, and does so in ways which make the reader experience it afresh, however mundane it may be.

In her novel, Music and Silence, when describing the quality of darkness in King Christian’s wine cellar, Rose Tremain calls it ‘darkness by design’, thus suggesting the element of control, the way in which the king’s authority extends even this far underground. Yet, in this scene, the king is hunting for a treasure which may or may not exist. The darkness is also designed to perpetrate a myth. In Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the autistic child narrator’s unique voice is achieved partly by his unusual observations of the world around him. A policeman is described ‘as if he had two mice up his nose’. Traffic sounds ‘like surf on a beach.’ The imagery is vivid, its originality arresting, yet we know exactly what Christopher Boone means. His angle of vision is unusual, but remains recognisably human, of the human world.

This requires as much hard work as characterisation, plot or any of the other ‘big’ components of the novel. Choose the wrong simile or metaphor, or allow your description to escape the confines of the possible, and it will grate on readers and undermine their confidence in your storytelling.

Writing description is not easy. It requires discipline, in both the creation and the deployment. It must be truthful, and it must serve your characters and their plot with iron obedience.

Friday, 2 December 2011

Kimi's Secret: podcast

Our first YA podcast is the opening of Kimi's Secret by John Hudspith, read by JJ Marsh.

Wanna hear something really scary? When death comes knocking on your door there is really only one place to hide. Dragged screaming to the paranormal world of Heart, where ghosts are real, big cats prowl, aliens are greylians, monkeys rule, trolls troll, fairies are vermin, the Adepts always know best, magic is mojo and roasted dodo is the dish of the day; Kimi Nichols is handed a secret that must never be revealed. To do so would mean the end of mankind.

WARNING: contains imploding toads, gravity-defying clowns, liquefied brains, a sadistic dentist and a deformed taxidermist; great dollops of blood and bogies, half a million crows, and a giant with OCD.

Gothic horror meets supernatural sci-fi; Kimi’s Secret will leave you gagging, breathless and sleeping with the light on. Suitable for grinning little monsters aged 10 to 100.

To listen to the podcast, go to:

Or to find out more, look for Kimi's Secret on Facebook or you can buy the book from Amazon as a paperback or for Kindle.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Therapeutic Writing Resources

Founded in 1996, Lapidus is the UK organisation for writing and reading for health and wellbeing and works from the principle that words used creatively can be a powerful tool for health and personal, community and world development.

Word Sauce
Conversations, inspiration, courses and community in writing for personal development, health and wellbeing.

The Writers in Prison Network
The Writers in Prison Network puts writers and creative artists into prisons to deliver creative writing, drama, video, music, oral storytelling, journalism, creative reading and publishing programmes.

MSc in Creative Writing for Therapeutic Purposes at the Metanoia Institute, etc
This course aims to prepare students for the considerable challenges and demands of working in the field of creative writing for therapeutic purposes.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Adam Bailey's Guide to Writing Retreats

Somewhere between a quiet hour at your desk and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn is the Writers Retreat. The Priory for procrastinators.

The retreat will be in the country, secluded by enough trees to give the sense of isolation but lit-up enough to scare off the hillbillies. Basically it’s the sort of hinterland people have being queuing up to leave since cities were invented. However, these pioneers were mostly of the 'worker' kind, lured to the city by the distant sound of clanging metal and the smell of burning man-flesh. Writers, though, being a subsidiary branch of Artist, are more into paraphrasing the grim experience than actually going anywhere near it, and will escape to the country before you can say, 'I wandered lonely as a mono-crop.'

Oo Arr
Of course the countryside has been inspiring people for years. These people have mostly been farmers though, and what they've been inspired to do (see 'think outside the box') is feed the brains of cows to other cows and then lean on a fence, have someone turn on the fairground music, and watch their herd start to wobble. Such is the jubilee on the borderline between prolonged isolation and drifting weedkiller fumes.

Making New Friends
Before you go then it's important you buy a Creatures of the Countryside book and learn to identify 'farmer'. The last thing you want to do is, high on the good life, approach one and start waxing lyrical. Remember, the only thing farmers wax is their tractor. And you won't be catching their wives waxing much either, especially in winter, although don’t mistake this wives' let it all hang out attitude for anything like that time learning pottery at Auntie Helga's Hippy Commune in Berlin. The countryside is Conservative. Traditional rules apply. Winter follows autumn follows summer and so on. The last thing you want to do is approach a farmer and gush your newly spun haiku. He'll rub his chin. He's mistaken your doubtful stammering for the confirmation code used with the Nazi he hid in his barn. He’ll reply,
‘Soft sunlight hides the
Inferno, raging in silence;
‘Oo-arr’ to fields sprayed with chemicals’ He’ll shake your hand the special way. ‘I thought you were dead, Gruber.' He’ll then talk for hours about immigrants.

The no-man’s land between customs being full of mines, it’s best to stay in. But what’s the retreat itself like? Apart from the bit about paying for it, each room is carefully appointed with the writer in mind. It has a desk. But what really makes this a writer's retreat, and not just a cottage in the country desperate for money, is that each room has a thesaurus in the top draw of the bedside table. Proof of this will be in the adverts for the retreats which say things like 'providing solitude not isolation.’

There will also be the lurking presence of other writers. Your pens keep going missing. And there's the feeling that the person behind you is writing down your conversation, and whispering to himself things like 'odd syntax, northern dialect, use for idiot character.’

Some retreats are really specialist with few creature comforts and no distractions except the feeling you're being watched from the trees. Such places are for writers who've read too much Thoreau and obviously you'll expect to pay a lot more for these. But for anyone not wanting to write the Great American Novel, perhaps just a few articles to Readers' Digest, most retreats have wash-basins.

Opulent writing retreats, on the other hand, provide rooms furnished exactly like those where great authors once worked. Popular is ‘Thomas de Quincey Lounge’, because there might or might not be spiders climbing the walls, also the ‘Stephen King Hotel’, which includes a special axe-wielding welcome by Jack Nicholson. Similar five-star retreats run special training courses. ‘Autobiography House’ teaches the magic formula: intervening time plus discretion-offsetting advance equals BULLSHIT. And at ‘The Charles Dickens It Was the Best of Writers Retreats It Was the Worst of Writers Retreats’ you’ll learn how to write sentences so long that they give MS Word’s paperclip a hernia and then you take this new skill on a trip to Beijing to breathe in the yellow belch and spend six-months stapled to a sewing machine in a firetrap adding value to cloth where you’ll have the logo of one of the trendiest brands in the world tattooed on your head, which although whilst there it’s for easier asset-indexing, when you get home you’ll be so Luxury and Premium you’ll be envied.

Immersed in the Cilento
It’s worth remembering the basic writers retreat maths – the more expensive it is, the more likely you'll end up joining a cult. For example, a weekend in the Welsh valleys in a house ran by Pat who gives free critiques and if tipsy plays the piano will be a fun and rewarding experience, and just as important, it will have plenty of options for escape. But a fortnight in the mountains of Italy, say, "immersed in the Cilento, ran by two ex-hippy's Lars and Else” is just asking for trouble.

Infinity and Beyond
To sum up, the writers retreat is a place of tranquility, albeit more ‘whale-song CD’ than ‘snorting ketamine off an infinity symbol’. It is at the writers retreat that you can free yourself from persistent conscious agitation for form in every thought and … sorry that’s yoga. Writers retreats are there to bore you senseless and leave you with no excuse but to write.

Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Alternatively of course you could just to go to prison. You'll have desk, discipline and enough gritty realism to roll a cigarette with. Of course, I don't endorse any of Her Majesties Writers Retreats; going to one will look bad on your CV for when it comes to the DayJob. In fact most employers will, when they see written in the ‘experiences’ section ‘prison’ frown only slightly less than if they read under 'interests' 'reading/ creative writing'. At least prison shows you're not afraid to break the rules and, if rumours about shower time are true, that you have a team ethic. ‘Reading’ just means you sit alone in corners, and ‘creative writing’ that you're probably a woman.

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Solitude and the City - An Ibero-American Book Festival at Foyles

Foyles, as I recollect, used to be a pretty forbidding place. Books piled high and organised by publisher seemed to be arranged expressly to prevent frivolous activities like browsing. And the payment system (acquired, as events manager Andy Quinn reminds me, from Romania) entailed obtaining a ticket at one counter which you took to a cash desk to hand over your money before collecting your book.

It’s all very different now. A few years ago, when they stripped out the old shelves, they found piles of unsold books. An entire room of books was discovered, boarded up and forgotten, like a bibliophile’s tomb of Tutankhamen. The whole place is now light and airy, with chairs dotted about where you can sit and read a few pages before deciding to buy. There is a funky little café. And on the top floor is the Gallery, venue for the free early evening events that now run throughout the year.

I was there for the second night of the annual Ibero-American book festival, to hear Mexican writer Chloe Aridjis discuss her award-winning debut novel, The Book of Clouds.

Her protagonist, Tatiana is a Mexican Jewish girl, youngest of a family of five. Having won a year in Berlin as a prize for coming top in her German course, she has stayed on, largely solitary, drifting from one odd job to another. As we meet her, she is starting a job with an eccentric elderly historian, transcribing endless tapes into which he has poured his thoughts on the ‘phenomenology of space’ – the way that the history of Berlin has seeped into the fabric of the city.

Berlin is very much a parallel protagonist in the book – mysterious, troubled, still trying to come to terms with its own divided past. There is a recurring theme too about the disorienting effects of artificial light.

It is significant that Aridjis has chosen to write, not about Mexico, but about a city where she lived for five years. She believes that illumination comes from some sort of dislocation. This is echoed in the book, where the three turning points for Tatiana are three moment of profound dislocation – one in a decaying basement once used as a bowling alley by the Stasi (or was it the Gestapo?), one by moonlight amongst the 2711 concrete slabs of the Holocaust Memorial, and one in a dense and mysterious fog that descends on the city at a critical moment.

Aridjis has a Mexican father and an American mother and grew up fluently bilingual. She admits to feeling uncomfortable, at times, being identified as a Mexican writer. After all, here she is, writing in English, setting her books in European cities. Yet she feels Mexican. For her, the strangest thing about The Book of Clouds was to find herself writing the interior monologues of a Mexican character in English.

Aridjis is currently living in London and working on a London-based book, to be called Assunder. Here she addresses a different form of disassociation. Set in the National Gallery, her protagonists are museum guards - invisible by profession, by and large impervious to their surroundings.

After that, she says, she would like to write a book set in Mexico. By then she will have achieved the necessary detachment to write about her own country. And yes, one day she would like to try writing something in Spanish. Some short stories, perhaps.

It is going to be interesting to see how this cosmopolitan writer with a coolly detached eye portrays London. Assunder is a book to look out for.

And I shall be keeping an eye, too, on Foyles’ event list, now I know what an intriguing (and welcoming) place it has become.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Writing to Live Again

“As one writer put it, the rapt attention of an audience is like a mirror in front of her, reassuring her that, after all the horror and degradation, she is still, powerfully and triumphantly, alive.” [Sheila Hayman, Write to Life coordinator]

Freedom from Torture’s creative writing group Write to Life was set up by the playwright Sonja Linden eleven years ago. It began with just four writers and a couple of mentors and showed how writing can help survivors cope better with their pasts and with the present.

The group now comprises some 20 clients, all referred by counsellors who recognise that for some writing can heal like no other form of therapy. Their work is truly ground-breaking. Write to Life is possibly the only therapeutic writing group in the world dedicated specifically to survivors of torture.

Many of the writers are in what the group’s current coordinator, film maker and novelist Sheila Hayman, describes as ‘a state of petrifaction’, unable to work, endlessly waiting to hear if their asylum application has been accepted. Writing is something they can do anywhere, at any time. “All it takes is a pen and paper and enough peace to be able to let the words come out.”

We are privileged to be able to bring you a podcast that features performances from seven of Write to Life’s very talented poets. You can listen to the podcast at

I am alive*, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia)
I know*, by Tim (Congo)
What belongs to me*, by ‘Saber’
Drifting, by Stephen (Burundi)
I hear a voice, by ‘Uganda’
Glimpse*, by Stephanie (Cameroon)
My Hands*, by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

The five starred poems can be read here.

I’m alive, by ‘Faith’ (Ethiopia) 

I’m out of the way, far away
From the journey I used to walk
For years and years
In the darkness.

I am now here, bright
Under the light
With my own breath
With my own soul.

Like the giant hand of Atacama
My hand is my sign
Revealing who I am, where I’m going
My existence and my new life.

I’m breathing, growing up again
Like a plant, like a grain.
I have renewed my self,
I’m born again.

The sky is singing, the earth dancing
On the ground my shadow is moving.
This is the sign that I’m alive. 

I know, by Tim (Congo)

I know half a loaf is better than nothing
Sometimes a whole loaf would be nice
I know peace is better than war
Why then is there war all over the world?
I know things will not always look rosy
It would be good if they did
I know life is a journey
It can be tiring, to travel all the time
I know that hope like a blazing candle can be
Put out in a moment
I also know that hope, like candle light
Can lead through dark moments
I know things can fall apart
They can also come together
I know we shall overcome some day
It will take a lot of work…

What Belongs to Me, by ‘Saber’

I came here on a day that nothing belonged to me
except my crutch, which at any time they could take from me
even though I could not walk without it.
On that day, things happened very quickly,
I was exhausted
but the time was very enjoyable
because every hour brought new things.
Bad or sad
Cold or warm,
Hunger and pleasure
New places... New people...New air!
But still, nothing belonged to me except my crutch.

I had brought many things with me;
my stories had a thousand colours, but my face had one, which was the colour of smoke.
I came here with the memory of those starless evenings which I had left; they did not belong to me.
I came here with the frightened smiles I’d found in the back of the lorry; I left them in the interview room; they did not belong to me.
I came here with my key in my pocket, the key of the small dark box which was full of white dreams; it did not belong to me.
Before I left my country I did not belong to myself, and nothing belonged to me.
I was owned by other people.
The day I came here, I owned nothing
and nothing belonged to me except my crutch...
the only thing that gives me direction
wherever I choose to go.

Glimpse, by Stephanie (Cameroon)

Looking around
I see nothing except my burden.
Everywhere seems dark, confined.
Like smoke from the chimney
I want to run out

Without remorse,
Leave everything behind
like birds in the sky
who fly free.
I want to turn my eyes

to a new horizon
fill my lungs with different air.
Like the sun rising
East to West, North to South,
Reaching every nook and cranny

I want to conquer the world
Leave my footprint everywhere.
I am still standing here
unable to cut the umbilical cord
so much to take care of.

But I know I belong here.

My Hands: by ‘Rocher’ (DRC)

Whenever I had done something naughty,
My mother used to shout,
Daughter, have you lost your head?
No mother.
One day, when I came to England
I felt terrible.
In this new country,
with a new foreign language,
there was nothing for me to do anymore.
This time, it was my hand I had lost.
Much as everyone talks about opportunity,
none of them seems to be for me.
I couldn't cook my food any more,
nor have a house to clean.
These hands, although they look like my Dad's hand,
they were no use to me now.

Sunday, 30 October 2011

Raised on the Web, but Liking a Little Ink ...

Thanks to for posting this, which I felt rather fitted what we've done here at WWJ Towers. An article published in Sunday's New York Times about the revival of small run printed zines. I've pinched their scan of the newsprint too. Please do give them a look if you have time. [JD - Editor]

Yes, it's finally happened ...

If you know me personally, you'll know that actually writing pieces for the magazine is something that, well, just doesn't happen, shall we say. But, over the last couple of months, I've been asked by a few people to write Blog posts related to writing and running the magazine. And I obliged ...

You can read Editor, me? Starting and running a literary magazine here:

And you can read Should I Submit? here:


JD Smith

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Dark Heart, by Darren J Guest

After far too long a delay (for which I can only apologise) we have a new podcast for you: the opening of Darren J Guest's intelligent, complex horror novel, Dark Heart, read by Daniel Barzotti.

On Leo's sixteenth birthday. something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when Leo thinks life can't get and worse... Leo dies.

A demon returns after twenty years.

An Angel follows close behind.

Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

To find out more about Dark Heart and about Darren Guest, visit his blog at

Monday, 17 October 2011

Please Sir! A guest post by Sam Payne

'Is this the writing class?' asked the dishevelled latecomer.

'Yes, please come in and take a seat,' said our twelve year old tutor.

'My daughter enrolled me, it was a birthday present.'

'That's nice,' said the tutor.

'NICE? NICE?' Laughed the latecomer somewhat manically, 'I'm bloody furious.'

I almost choked on the end of my pencil. This was my first creative writing course, excitement and anticipation had been bubbling away inside of me for days.

This was it. This course was going to teach me how to be the next JK Rowling. I was going to write a bestseller, make a shitload of money and retire to an island in the sun. Or, buy a campervan and tour Cornwall, I hadn't quite decided which. So why was the dishevelled latecomer or Bob as he later became known, so furious about being enrolled? What did he know that I didn't?

I’d always dreamt of being a famous novelist, hasn’t everyone? Trouble is instead of actually putting pen to paper, I decided I needed to learn all there was to know about writing a novel before I could make a start. So I bought a book: How to Write a Hugely Successful Novel that Sells Twenty Three Billion Copies and Gets Made into a Feature Film which Wins Six Oscars and a Golden Globe. At least I think that’s what it was called. I devoured the book in a single sitting and then as I sat picking bits of paper from my teeth I contemplated making a start. Over the next few days I wrote a grand total of one thousand, four hundred and twenty six words. That was the beginning of my novel, an epic thriller set in a cake factory, but something wasn’t right. It didn’t quite sound right. The story I had in my head didn’t quite match up to what was on the page. Try as I might, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was wrong with it. I needed more than a book, I needed feedback. I needed help to coax my inner genius out from under the rock it called home. So after a quick flick through the yellow pages and an even quicker phone call I was enrolled on a Creative Writing course at the local community centre. Which was where I found myself the following Tuesday and after Bob’s dramatic entrance, Tutor Boy introduced himself. He said he was a university graduate and a successful poet.

‘What do you mean by successful?’ asked Bob, whose voice seemed to have gone from manic to sinister in the time it took him to find a seat.

Tutor boy shifted uncomfortably, ‘well err...’

‘Have you won the Bridport Prize?’


‘The Poetry Society’s annual competition then?’ continued Bob.

‘Well no, but I’m a published poet.’

‘Oh really and where have your poems appeared? The New Yorker? The Paris Review?’

Tutor Boy looked confused.

‘Hmmm I thought so, just a bunch of failed writers running these things. All these courses do is teach you never to be satisfied with what you write.’ Muttered Bob.

Oh dear. It didn’t occur to me to check out the tutors credentials before enrolling on the course, I just assumed it would be someone who, at the most, knew what they were talking about and at the least, didn’t still wipe their nose on their sleeve.

Bob didn’t turn up the following week; in fact he didn’t come back at all. Tutor Boy said it was because he’d been committed to a mental institute but I didn’t quite believe him. I attended every week and listened intently as Tutor Boy ‘taught’ us the fundamentals of creative writing which, quite frankly, left me wondering if he’d just read the same book I had. It should’ve stopped there, but come the end of the course I still didn’t feel equipped to write a novel. So I enrolled on another course and then another one and then another one after that. Pretty soon I was attending every workshop and seminar going, although, in hindsight, I probably should’ve given ‘How to Write an Erotic Shopping List a miss. I became obsessed. I was an addict. My life was over. I’d gone from spending all my time thinking about writing to spending all my time learning about writing which, would have been fantastic if I’d actually managed to produce something I was satisfied with. Did I write a bestseller? No. Did I even get close to writing a novel? No. Why not? I hear you cry. Because, try as I might, I couldn’t get past the opening chapter. Every time I looked at it I’d edit it a little bit more and then I would pass it over for feedback on whichever course I was attending at the time and some helpful soul would suggest ways on how I could improve it. When I’d done what they suggested I’d hand it back to the group and someone else would add another smidgen of advice and so it went on and on and on and...

Four years after that first course, (I know, slow doesn’t quite cover it does it?) I realised something. Bob was right. Yes, yes I’d learnt about the technical side of the writing process but I’d also turned into a perfectionist freak wielding a red pen. I spent so much time picking and picking at a piece of writing, before I knew it I’d stripped it of everything that made it good in the first place. Creative writing courses can be great, providing you find one with a tutor who knows what they’re talking about, but I’m done with them. From now on I’m just going to concentrate on getting past the first chapter of that novel. I aim to write a complete draft before I even think about editing and redrafting and hopefully, by then I’ll be able to trust my instincts and have a good idea of when to stop.

Sam lives in a quiet corner of Devon where she spends most of her time staring at goats.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Carver’s Couch

Exploring the psychological aspect of writing  with consultant clinical psychologist Sue Carver

When I read through my writing recently after a break of a few weeks, I found many faults with it. Reading the same piece of work through again soon afterwards I thought it seemed a lot better, even though I hadn’t yet changed it! Why do we react differently to our writing after a break from it? Is there an optimum period of time for leaving it before editing? 
Thanks,Tricia Gilbey

Hi Tricia,
Thanks for your question. I enjoyed tossing it around my brain.

There seems to be a rare consensus among writers about the wisdom of leaving a gap between finishing a piece of work and starting the editing process.

“Let your work stand before deciding whether or not to serve.” Andrew Motion.
 “… try to read your own work as a stranger would read it, or even better, as an enemy would.” Zadie Smith.
“The emotional attachment you feel to a scene or a chapter will fade as you move on to other stories.” Sarah Waters.

My trawl of the creative writing literature and writer’s websites suggests there is also agreement about the minimum amount of time required between writing and editing: three to four weeks seems to be the received wisdom and that chimes with my own experience. Jane Austen, however, put her novels away in a drawer for a year before starting the editing process. There may well be a lesson there for us all.

Why does it help to allow time to pass between writing and editing? I would say because time, or what happens cognitively during the passage of time, enhances objectivity. Both emotional and cognitive factors are likely to be relevant, but I will set emotion to one side and focus here on:  perceptual set; visual habituation; memory and forgetting.

Perceptual set is the tendency to perceive or notice some aspects of available sensory data and ignore others. Bugelski and Alampay, 1961 used the ‘rat-man’ ambiguous figure to demonstrate the importance of expectation in inducing perceptual set. Subjects were shown either a series of animal pictures or neutral pictures prior to exposure to the ambiguous picture. Those subjects who had had prior exposure to animal pictures significantly more frequently perceived the ambiguous picture to be a rat.

We fail to notice writing errors for similar reasons.

Extrapolating from this research, the more recently we have read the same piece of writing, the more likely we are to perceive what we expect to perceive and the less likely we are to be able to see it ‘afresh’.
Habituation is the psychological process in which there is a decrease in psychological and behavioural responding to a stimulus after repeated exposure to that stimulus. For example, a short time after we dress, the stimulation of clothing against the skin fades and we become unaware of it – hair shirts aside.

Habituation affects all senses and this bias towards novelty appears to be ‘wired-in’, presumably, because of its survival value. For the editing process, visual habituation is relevant: put simply – at the level of brain chemistry and neuron firing – the more recently visual information has been scanned, the less attention the brain will pay to it. 


A brief foray into the cognitive processes involved may be useful.

Sensory memory, the information we receive through the senses, lasts only a few seconds.

Short Term Memory (STM) takes over when the information in sensory memory is transferred to consciousness. Short term memory lasts longer than sensory memory (up to 30 seconds or so), but it still has a very limited capacity: 7 +/- 2 bits of information, such as a string of 7 digits.

Finally, there is long term memory (LTM). Unlike sensory memory and STM, LTM is relatively permanent and practically unlimited in terms of its storage capacity. It is the type of memory most relevant to your question.

Factors which strongly influence the transfer of information from STM into LTM are the significance and rehearsal; the more significant information is to us and the more we rehearse, the more we tend to remember. In learning theory terms, going over and over the same piece of prose constitutes rehearsal.


The ability to retrieve information from LTM tends to reduce over time, although failing to remember something does not necessarily mean the information is no longer stored. The information may well be there but inaccessible because of weakened retrieval mechanisms.

‘Over-learned’ information – rehearsed so often it leaves a very strong trace – is very resistant to decay.
To sum up, the longer one leaves it between writing and editing, the less rehearsal there will be and the more likely forgetting, of at least some aspects of the work, becomes. In addition, the influence of perceptual set and habituation are likely to be reduced, the combined effects facilitating greater objectivity. I hope that rather long answer to your question persuades you to let as much time as possible elapse between drafts. I may just have convinced myself.

Sue Carver, consultant clinical psychologist and writer of fiction and poetry, has a keen interest in the psychological aspects of the creative writing process. She doesn’t entirely agree with Erica Jong that “all writing problems are psychological problems...”, but she would be happy to consider, from a psychologist’s perspective, any writing-related questions that you may like to pose. 

Please send your questions to: with the subject heading Carver’s Couch. 

Three Ps in a Plot

by Anne Stormont

A finished novel is a work of art. The writer is an artist whose medium is language and whose artefact is a story. The story is what the reader interacts with, what the reader experiences. The story is a journey from A to B – or indeed, C to E via B, A then D – it can be non-linear, circular, long or short. But story is NOT plot.

Plot is an element of the writer’s craft. Plotting is a technical skill. A technically sound plot will not only ensure the reader arrives at journey’s end, but that they will get the most out of the experience. The successful plot needs Perspective, Possibilities and Pauses.

There is an assertion often made by tutors of writing that there are only seven basic plots in novel writing. You might dispute the precise number, but it’s probably fair to assume it’s a relatively small, finite amount. So, in order to produce a novel that is fresh and original, the writer’s choices as regards the permutations, dynamics and interaction of the ‘Three P’s’ are crucial.

I feel a metaphor coming on. I have a friend who is a hill-walking and mountaineering guide. When preparing to lead a party of walkers or climbers, she has to think about navigating and route-finding for the expedition. The start and end points of the trip are fixed and every mountain will have its own story to tell its visitors. But the guide must choose whether to navigate from north or south, whether to turn east or west at some point and must keep checking along the way that the bearings are true. Navigation decisions give a particular perspective. Then there are the route finding possibilities – will she lead the party along a well worn path, will she take a new, unexplored line, will she take them over rough or easy terrain? And finally – where will the rest points, viewpoints and possible side trips occur?

So author as tour guide – it works for me.

When plotting, the writer chooses the perspective from which the reader will view the story. The narration provides the map, compass and waymarkers - and may well leave some decisions and interpretations to the reader. The author will also provide intriguing possibilities as to where the path is heading, there will be some satisfying predictability and some unforeseen twists. And there may well be pauses – places to reflect, to look back, to study the horizon before pressing on.

All these decisions will be crucial for how the reader experiences the story. The plot lines determine how the artefact of the story is revealed. Anyone can tell a story - but only an artist can show it in its best and most intriguing light – and that is down to the ‘Three P’s’.  

Scripts: Plot, Rinse and Repeat

 by Ola Zaltin

Once upon a time, on a dark and stormy night, in a galaxy far, far away...

...a story began. Probably, this ur-story began around a camp-fire, and probably because someone died. (This was some millennia before Celebrity Big Brother, mind) Someone had died and to explain the inexplicable, a person close to the deceased started telling the story of who he, or she, was: what they did in this life and where they went in the hereafter.

Thus; religion and story-telling became inextricably intertwined. A dual, Manichean, universe evolved that would influence most world religions to describe an everlasting storyline of good vs evil.

To make the legends that developed into story clearly recognizable as tales of woe, wonder and mystery, a formula began to develop: It was a dark and stormy night - There was once a - ‘Twas the year of - Etc.  Stories started taking on a certain form, a template, if you like. There was a hero. There was an adversary. But most of the time we already knew the outcome. The good guy would climb up to sit at God almighty’s side. The other fella would wash his hands in eternity: The hero would overcome all the obstacles, the adversary would vanish in a fiery pit.

This is where plot begins. Joseph Campbell was the great old man who synthesised millennia of story-telling into “The hero with a thousand faces” (1949) and it became a seminal work, with the later “The Power of Myth” (1988) seriously bringing him to Hollywood’s attention. Because if it’s something Hollywood has been looking for since Day One, it’s the answer to this question: what is the recipe for a block-buster  money-making mega-hit? How do you make tons of cash on stories. Later on, Christopher Vogler would distill Campbell’s work into the now legendary “The Writer’s Journey: Mythic structure for writers.” (1992), which was exclusively aimed at screenwriters.

Although this article isn’t about Vogler’s book,  I dare you, dear reader, to check it out on Wikipedia and not laugh out loud when you recognize exactly all the steps of the Hero’s Journey, being portrayed in film after film from Hollywood ever since Star Wars (George Lucas was a huge fan of Campbell), to now almost any modern crime, drama, rom-com or action film.

Basically, scripts set up a question-mark in the beginning: Will the detective find the killer? Will the boy get the girl? (When watching both of these genres - romantic comedy/drama action - note how after the last denouement, either romantic or dramatic, not very many seconds of film are left. I.e. The guy finally gets the girl? End of story. The Detective captures/kills the killer? End of story. Both plot engines - the question marks set up at the beginning of the story are null and void the second they are answered - and our interest fades faster than you can spell THE END)

I’ve previously mentioned it, but I’ll gladly be a repetitve old bore: character is plot. The main-character must take action. Action is forward momentum and action defines character - and so - plot. Imagine, if you will, a young American dreamer sitting on his room writing endlessly on his blog about his dream to become an action-hero, kick bad-guys’ asses and getting the girl. And that’s all he does. Nothing else.

Now, imagine the same set-up, but the guy making his own costume and walking out on the streets to become a super-hero. However, the first thing that happens is he gets brutally stabbed in the stomach by punks - then hit by a car. (Goal, Action: Twist). That was the opening of Kick-Ass, if you hadn’t noticed.
Because in the world of  formulaic film, you’ve got to have a plot-point 1: the first serious turning-point of the story. I think of it as throwing a  king hell-size spanner into the motor we just got humming smartly along. Something that seriously alters the course of the story.

In Four Weddings and a Funeral, e.g,  this would be the second wedding, when Carrie introduces her fiancée to Charles, dashing his romantic hopes, and spinning the story into unexpected waters.
I’ll refrain from getting into the mid-point the second plot-point and the possibility of a four-act structure and the mid-act ”pinches” of Syd Field and whatnot. Life’s too short. (And my word-count is headed for the moon.)

 As for the outcome in both films: the characters overcome insurmountable adversity and get the girl. Not surprised? This is probably because there is such a beautiful wonderness as Suspension of Disbelief. And without it, film-making would be dead in the water.

These three words mean that although we know that Bruce Willis is an actor and acting in a fiction recorded on celluloid  and reading from a script;  if it’s done well enough, we’ll still sit on the edge of our seats. Will he survive the 101 guys with machine-guns after him in a highscraper? Oh Willis, will you make it? Yippee-kay-yeee motherfucker!! (He does.)

We instinctively buy into this ancient sense of community around the warm camp-fire light. “Let me tell you a story,” and we hunker down and we hush up and we point our bright eyes to the story-teller and our bushy tails into the cold dark night and share stories. In kids this is very pronounced. When my niece Filippa wants to hear Where the wild things are read for the umpteenth time that day - nevermind week - she’s displaying the same instinct we grown-ups have as well (albeit we think we disguise it better).  For  there is something strangely satisfying about knowing the outcome of a story.

This, to me, is the central role of plot: an exciting question-mark set up to be answered, a sense of forward propulsion, astounding and unexpected things throwing us off track, coupled with the age-old safeness of suspension of belief and the the knowledge that at least here, within this story, we can rely on that all will end well.

Don’t Lose the Plot

Creative Writing with Sarah Bower

OK, it’s a hint on the imperial side, but Rudyard Kipling inscribed a little ditty to define plot. Plot, he said, was a band of ‘six honest serving men’ and
Their names are What and Why and When And How and Where and Who.

I dare say most readers of this magazine live perfectly adequately without any serving men (serving women, on the other hand, raising a whole new argument which has no place here). There are contemporary writers and theorists of the novel who would contend that the novel can live equally well without a plot. David Markson, for example, famously wrote non-linear, discontinuous narratives which are classified as ‘postmodern novels’. However, he entitled one of these This Is Not A Novel, thus begging the question, however ironically, whether or not a plotless narrative can be defined as a novel.

That said, however, the popular novel remains a predominantly plot driven form. The extraordinary success of a novelist like Dan Brown illustrates the pre-eminence of plot over skilful characterisation, atmospheric scene-setting or plausible dialogue. Plot, therefore, you must, if you wish to sell books. Kipling would have found it difficult to conceive of civilised living without servants. The novelist who wants to make any kind of living at all must learn to plot.

Plot is Janus-faced. On the one hand, it is something we do almost intuitively. We are hard-wired for storytelling. From the point in our distant past when we first learned to make fires and gather round them to cook and keep warm, we have passed the time by telling stories. The hunter arrives home as darkness falls and what he narrates, while the meat is roasting, is not that which is mundane or reflects badly on his prowess but the exciting, the dangerous, the heroic. It’s not the humble creatures he caught and killed that count, but the battle he had with the sabre-tooth to get them or the big fish that got away. From the outset, we have reordered and edited the facts to improve the story.

On the other hand, as Guy Saville, a recent interviewee in this magazine, has written, ‘writing is as much to do with logical deduction as it is with inspiration’ . New students frequently come to my novel writing classes saying they have a great idea for a novel, they have written maybe ten or twenty pages and then run out of steam. This is almost always because they have failed to appreciate the importance of planning. Unlike a short story, which tends to be an examination of a single theme or situation, a novel is a complex structure involving many characters, multiple storylines, an extended chronology and a range of different settings. It is absolutely impossible for the writer to hold all this in her mind without mapping the novel out so she knows where she is going.

This is the process we know as plotting, and, as it is the least conventionally ‘artistic’ part of the creative work, it often frustrates the beginning novelist. The conventional novel is constructed around a spine of Aristotelian causality. As E. M. Forster puts it in Aspects of the Novel , ‘the king dies, then the queen dies’ is a story; ‘the king dies, then the queen dies of grief’ is a plot – the king’s death causes the queen’s death. This is where you need to begin when devising a plot. Its spine will consist of a series of causally linked events which carry the principal characters on their journey of discovery and self-revelation.

On its own, however, this kind of structure would quickly become boring. The next phase of the plan must be to set up obstacles which will throw the characters off-course and delay, inhibit, or even reverse, their progress. Now you are beginning to introduce narrative tension to your work. You have shown what your characters have to achieve, and then blocked their path so readers become anxious as to whether or not they will succeed. As long as you have created engaging characters, this uncertainty will be a major factor in hooking your readers and keeping them interested.

At this stage, we are still working with a linear chronology. One event leads to another in a conventionally logical way, and the only disruption is a series of hurdles you have erected around the track to provide a bit of excitement. But the novel is more than this, surely. The novel is an illusion, a sleight of hand whereby the reader is duped into believing mere words on the page constitute a concrete world. To succeed in creating this illusion, we must add a depth of perspective to the narrative. We achieve this by devising minor characters and giving each of them a storyline which feeds into the main spine of the story. Imagine a fish skeleton, with the fish’s spine being your main plotline and all the smaller bones feeding into it being the sub-plots which you build around the minor characters, gradually bringing all these together as you approach the novel’s climax.

According to Robert McKee , a plot consists of five parts:
•      The inciting incident
•      Progressive complications
•      Crisis (the DECISION which brings about the climax)
•      Climax (brings about IRREVERSIBLE CHANGE)
•      Resolution

To a greater or lesser extent, you can break down each chapter and even each scene in the same way – as if your plot was a verbal cauliflower! The inciting incident is that which radically upsets the balance of the protagonist’s life. The rest of the novel charts her/his struggles to regain that balance. The climax is the major turning point, induced by the crisis. The resolution can involve either the balance being restored or the protagonist coming to terms with a changed environment. Whatever the resolution, the protagonist must have gone on a journey. This may be physical as well as intellectual and emotional, but need not necessarily be so.

How you plan your novel is your choice. There are writers whose plans are so detailed they are virtually précis’ of the finished work, with only the creative ‘gaps’ (dialogue, scene-setting, description etc.) to be filled in when they begin to write ‘properly’. Others use timelines, spreadsheets, index cards or brainstorms, all tools we tend to associate with activities such as manufacturing or accountancy rather than creative writing. Whatever approach suits you, once you have made a plan, it is a good exercise to test it against McKee’s analysis. If any scene doesn’t contain these elements, you need to ask yourself if you really need it. Will it hold the reader’s interest and carry the action forward? If not, cut it – and you will find this a lot easier to do at the planning stage than when it is a complete and polished miniature masterpiece.

Even if you choose to explore the less-travelled road and challenge the conventional wisdom that the novel is a plotted narrative, you will still need to plan. It is impossible to reveal your intentions to readers unless you can create a pattern for them to interpret. So, however strong the inspiration with which you start, be prepared to plan if you want to be able to carry on past the first wave of enthusiasm and work through those difficult, mundane stages in the process that are the vital mortar between the big, exciting set-piece ‘bricks’.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Best Comedy Scene Competition 2011 - THE WINNERS

Getting Married by Tony Oswick

Had Adam not Eaten the Apple by Peter McGinniss
Daisy (excerpt) by Thomas Willshire
Pen Picture of Larry (excerpt) by Richard Gibney
This is not a Love Song (excerpt) by Richard Gibney
Conversations with Gran by Deborah Smith

Prizes: £200 First Prize (plus publication in Words with JAM ) and five runners up of £25 each and a copy of Christopher Brookmyre’s Where the Bodies Are Buried (plus publication on the Words with JAM Blog)

Judge’s Report by Danny Gillan
I’ve always said I’m not a judgemental person. I’ve never believed it, of course. So, when asked by the Almighty Ed to judge the comedy scene competition I humbly yet eagerly accepted before she even got to the question mark.

The variety of style, format and subject matter in the entries was astonishing, and it was great to see not just prose writers but screenwriters, sketch writers and playwrights entering the fray.

Whittling down the entries to a longlist of six and then an overall winner was agonising in a way people with multiple physical injuries will never understand. But, it had to be done so do it I did.

First a few words about our five worthy runners up.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Banned Books Week 2011

This week is Banned Books Week in the USA. Organised by the American Libraries Association, this has run annually since 1982 and is billed as a celebration of the freedom to read.

Every year in the US, several hundred books are ‘challenged’ – that is to say, or school or a library receives a formal written complaint – most often from a parent – requesting that a book be removed. The vast majority of these challenges affect books for children and – increasingly – for young adults.

Not all books that are challenged end up being taken off the shelves, but a fair few do. For example, in Texas, for every book challenged in schools during 2009/10, around one in five was give some form of restricted access and one in four was removed altogether. In some cases, a book can be taken off the school curriculum in individual schools or school districts because of the objection of one parent.

Judy Blume, in her 1999 introduction to Places I Never Meant to Be, dates the change in attitudes to the 1980 presidential election. For a decade before that, she says, she’d felt free to write pretty much what she pleased. But then “the censors crawled out of the woodwork, organised and determined.”

Outright censorship may be less of an issue in Europe than it is in the US. But don’t imagine that as non-US writer you are unaffected. Anne Rooney, a Cambridge based YA writer who had one of her own books removed from an elementary school in Texas last year, believes that writers elsewhere are being affected even before their books are published.

“Non-fiction publishers are more cautious than fiction publishers in my experience. Children’s non-fiction is illustrated, which is costly to produce. The publisher has to be sure they can sell into their targeted markets, which usually include the USA, or they can’t afford to publish the book at all.”

This can lead to publishers removing passages that might reduce sales in the US. And to writers self-censoring.

“We know what is not going to get through and why make work for ourselves at the editing stage by including material that will be challenged?” says Rooney.


Similar to Banned Books Week, Canada holds Freedom to Read Week at the end of February. This year, Canadians were invited ‘Free a Challenged Book’ on Bookcrossing. As big fans of Bookcrossing ourselves, we think that’s a great idea.

Why not pick a banned book of your own and set it free? It doesn’t have to be from the ALA list. You can choose any book that has banned at some point in its history. (If you want some ideas, take a look at Then write and tell us what book you chose, why, and where you left it. We have a copy of Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games to give away for the best entry.


Read more about censorship and Banned Books Week in the October edition of Words with Jam. And you can join in Banned Books Week by taking part in the ALA’s Virtual Read Out on YouTube.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

60 Seconds with Emma Donoghue

[First published in the February 2011 issue of Words with JAM]

Born in Dublin in 1969, Emma studied English and French at University College, Dublin. She moved to England in 1990 and went on to gain a PhD from Cambridge University. She became a writer at the age of 23.

Her novels include the award-winning Hood (1995); Slammerkin (2000), a historical novel; Life Mask (2004), which tells the true story of three famous Londoners in the late eighteenth century; and The Sealed Letter (2008), joint winner of the 2009 Lambda Literary Award (Lesbian Fiction). Her short story collections include Kissing the Witch (1997), a collection of re-imagined fairytales; The Woman who Gave Birth to Rabbits (2002); and Touchy Subjects (2006), stories about taboos.

Her non-fiction includes Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture 1668-1801 (1993), a survey of printed texts on lesbian themes published between the Restoration and the end of the eighteenth century. She is also the editor of What Sappho Would Have Said: Four Centuries of Love Poems Between Women (1997); and The Mammoth Book of Lesbian Short Stories (1999).

Her most recent novel is Room (2010), shortlisted for the 2010 Man Booker Prize for Fiction. She now lives in Canada, with Chris, Finn and Una.

Which was your favourite childhood book?
The Narnia cycle.

Where do you write?
Anywhere I happen to be.

Which was the book that changed your life?
Jeanette Winterson's The Passion taught me what should have been obvious, that I could be an out lesbian and a great writer at the same time.

What objects are on your desk, and why?
Every bloody thing I'm trying to keep out of my small kids' mouths or am meaning to file away... plus some beautiful wooden bowls I can't see because everything else obscures them.

Short stories or novels - which is more you?
Can't choose, won't choose, and that goes for plays and nonfiction too.

Do you have a word or phrase that you most overuse?

Is there a book you were supposed to love but didn't?
Many - the chemistry is most mysterious - couldn't stand The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, for instance.

What have you learned from writing?
We're here on earth to let out the stories in our heads that no one else can tell.

Which book do you wish you'd written?
Today? Neal Stephenson's The Baroque Cycle.

E-books - nemesis or genesis?
Haven't read one yet but all in favour.

Which book/writer deserves to be better known?
Catherine Austen, Walking Backwards.

What are you working on at the moment?
Wading through email up to my eyeballs ... but also a novel about a murder in 1870s San Francisco.

Which nostalgic snack do you wish they still made?
Acid drops like I remember them from Ireland circa 1975