Rules, Tools and the Power of Narrative

By CM Taylor

CM Taylor is a novelist and a screenwriter. He teaches on the new mentored Retreat West course ‘The Novel Creator’. Here, he outlines his approach to teaching writing.

Between the idea
    And the reality
    Between the motion
    And the act
    Falls the Shadow
   
    Between the conception
    And the creation
    Between the emotion
    And the response
    Falls the Shadow

Above is a (slightly excised) quote from T S Eliot’s 1925 poem The Hollow Men, and while Eliot was writing more broadly about the human condition it seems true that in so doing he also knowingly defined the central burden of the writer. Namely: how do you move clearly from intention (the idea, the motion, conception, the motion) to the finished work (the reality, the act, the creation, the response)?

How do you turn that itch, that distant glimpse of shy meaning, that feeling that every writer has about wanting to say something far off; how do you turn that into a sculpted, true, finished thing?

How do you move from inspiration to form?

Please, let me tell you a story.

In the year 2000 I was sat in my then lounge in Brussels in a patch of sunlight and the idea hit me that I was going to write a book about cows. Thunk! The inspiration came down, and as someone who believes in honouring inspiration, who has some pure, Jungian faith in messages received from inside, I went with it. As I always do.

Six years later, after researching natural history, domestication, evolution, agriculture, bleeding etc, I had finished a book which had cost me countless hours of cursing and swearing and research and discombobulation. Crucially, the book was really bad.

Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow.

Fast forward to 2014, and I’m sat in a taverna in Spain and – Thunk! – suddenly I know I’m going to write a book about an expat couple, one of whom wants to move home and one of whom wants to stay on.

Four years later, after doing barely any research at all, and I’ve written the most emotionally-satisfying and honest piece I’ve ever written and it’s out, published by Duckworth.

What’s the difference?

In a word, structure.

Between those two dates – as well as having kids and jobs and such things – I had worked extremely hard to develop an understanding of the underlying principles of story structure, and – this is the crucial bit – I had worked out how to use storytelling principles in service to my inspiration.

I’d read the works of story-telling theorists (Aristotle, Jung, Campbell, Booker, Field, Snyder, Vonnegut, Marks, Pixar, Yorke, etc) many – but not all – of whom said or implied or assumed that you must tell a story one way, and your story must have certain elements. I’d wrestled with act structure and the mid-point and point of view and the crisis and the inciting incident and the act one turn and the death experience and the character arc and the hero’s journey and the monomyth and the archetypes and the difference between story and plot – and I found what I read to be formative and useful and fortifying. But some of the approaches outlined left me cold, while some lit me up; plus, much of it seemed contradictory, arbitrary, brimming with macho stipulation.

I realised that writings on the underlying structures of story were tools not rules.

These tools either helped fan the flames of my initial inspirations, or they did not. My initial inspiration which emerged from my feelings and my experience was the cardinal thing, the sacred fuel, the whole reason and justification and motivation to write, without which I had no reason at all to write, and if the things I was reading from story-telling gurus did not back that up, then I just walked away.

That’s why almost every lecture I give begins with George Orwell’s rules of writing from his 1946 essay Politics and the English Language. Now the first five of Orwell’s rules warn sensibly against the passive voice and cliché and against verbosity and shallow intellectualism, etc, but then the sixth rule says this: Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

And I love that. It has helped me immeasurably.

That’s my attitude to teaching and practice.

Use the rules, don’t let them use you. Break any of them rather than allow them to falsify your experience, your truth about life. Knowledge of storytelling craft is there to endorse and develop your unique perception. Craft should be a buoyancy aid not a millstone, to help your personal artistic truth from falling lost into the shadow.

That’s why I make theme – what a writer’s work is about – central to my storytelling teaching and practice, and why I develop character and plot from theme. Theme, meaning, inspiration is the soul of the work.

So, can creative writing be taught? Some say no it can’t. But as someone who has seen with his own eyes many, many writers develop thrillingly through the application of craft to their art, I know it can be taught. Absolutely.

But I think it can only be taught usefully in a non-stipulative way which privileges and endorses the writer’s personal experience and bears in mind that the more formulas you apply to writing the more formulaic the writing becomes.

Oh, and there’s a second condition needed for creative writing to be usefully taught – that the writer has to absolutely work their arse off. And there’s not one single thing any teacher can do to guarantee that.

Find out more about Retreat West’s mentored ‘The Novel Creator’ course, and check out testimonials from previous students, here.

Head to CM Taylor’s website for more on his writing, editing and teaching work.

Announcing: new launches added to the Retreat West course collection

Looking for expert guidance to hone your writing skills during lockdown? You’ve come to the right place. We’re launching a range of brand-new courses, as well as celebrating our long-running favourites. Whether you’ve been writing for years or are just starting out, our comprehensive courses are designed to help you take your fiction to the next level.

Explore the Retreat West course collection here, or take a look at what’s on offer below:

  • Find out how flash-fiction techniques can help you draft your novel with this free, one-week course: Develop Your Novel in a Flash.
  • Finding your feet with fiction, and looking to learn the basics of great storytelling? The new Fiction Fundamentals course is the one for you.
  • The ever-popular Fantastic Flashing course will polish your flash skills, and support you in writing your own complete collection of micro-fiction stories.
  • Get ready to upgrade your storytelling with the Flash Weekender, another firm favourite with students. It’s now available to start anytime ⁠— and will also still be running as a group course through the year, too.
  • Transform memories into beautiful memoir with the Flash Memoir course. It’s running as a group course, or you can choose the start-anytime solo option instead if you choose.
  • Jump into the Micro Fiction Month this June: it’s all about creating short, submission-ready stories.
  • Finally, announcing The Novel Creator: A Mentored Course. With one-to-one mentor guidance and in-depth modules exploring every aspect of novel writing, this year-long course has everything you need to complete a professionally edited manuscript. Applications are now open.

Writing an Award Winning Novella-in-Flash

Somewhere between the linear narrative and the post-postmodern fracturing of narrative, there might be a third way, dependent on its brevity as its primary descriptor… Rusty Barnes

As we know, the short form is a great medium to experiment with as it has the art of brevity and flexibility on its side. What might become insistent or annoying in longer forms – multiple perspectives, unusual point-of-view, poetic language – in small doses can be refreshing and entertaining.  Techniques such as collage, association, counterpointing are all devices that really come into their own when putting together a novella-in-flash and I think the opening of Meg Pokrass’s essay in The Rose Metal Press publication (2014) My Very End of the Universe focusing on the study of the form is excellent in illustrating the process of writing in this genre:

‘If you ask an artist who creates crazy quilts how they come up with their designs, that artist will likely tell you that each finished project originates from an emotional place. Each quilt is different because it is made of many found scraps and pieces of cloth in different sizes with no regular colour or pattern—the sleeves of an old work shirt, perhaps, or the skirt of a wedding dress. Similarly, the writing of a novella-in-flash involves working with flash fiction fragments and stories by linking them together to form a layered, narrative arc. Working in both art forms demands an improvisational spirit. regarding the creation of both content and structure. A novella-in-flash writer and a crazy quilt artist both become familiar with navigating incompletion and juxtaposition. Both art forms involve delving into the most unlikely places and finding pieces which, when put together, create an untraditional whole’.

 

Meg talks about reviving and re-visioning narratives that were gathering dust in a ‘metaphorical scrap bag’ and this seems to be something that many novella-in-flash-writers start out doing – taking pieces that haven’t worked out on their own and finding that they were all along, part of a bigger picture. Moral of this – never throw any writing away! In my case, I started out with a clear plan of what I wanted to do but thought it would be a simple short story about a stonemason who fell off a church steeple and the consequences of this accident for his family. This was a true story about my neighbour and I quickly wrote myself into a corner with it, due perhaps to trying to cling to the biographical details which is always a risk.

When we try to stay ‘true’ to the facts we tend to not see what the story needs. Luckily Flash was there to help me. As an exercise, I stepped out of his narrative arc and imagined all the other people involved, collating little stories about them and experimenting with point of view. It soon came to light that the story wasn’t about the father, but the daughter and interestingly although she became the protagonist, the story arc changed depending on what flash was placed next to another flash.

This idea of juxtaposition is interesting and I soon learnt that in a work of art everything is laden with affect, and whenever you put two of anything together, a third thing emerges. Importantly, the things that logic would normally try to keep separate the writer brings together. It is very liberating to work in this way and was a sort of epiphany for me. It is my belief that there are two components necessary for our growth as writers. The first is our ability to access the unconscious, and the second is our willingness to take risks. Risk taking and experimentation allow us to bring something fresh to our practice, preventing us writing the same thing over and over again – pushing the boundaries of our craft and the richness of our stories.

So here is a little exercise you can do to try out your novella-in-flash muscles and to give you an idea of how fun it can be to make a patchwork flash. I can’t take credit for it – this is an exercise created by that great Flash Maker, Randall Brown.

 

Preparing for Counterpointed Flash

 

  1. Take the structure – A-B-A-B-A-B Choose how many short pieces you want. Here I suggest 6 each of 250 words.
  2. A (one thing) / B (another thing)
  3. Options are unlimited for As and Bs
  4. A is fiction; B is nonfiction (or vice-versa); both are fiction/cnf; parallel events; and so on.
  5. Dissimilarity adds tension (how will these two things ever come together is a question that will raise expectation for the reader)

Try this:

  1. Images/words from A begin to seep into B, more and more
  2. The final section might be AB
  3. Where this juxtaposition of A/B leads us becomes “shattering”
  4. We would not have arrived there with A alone or B alone
  5. A surprising, profound meaning has been figured out by the end.

 

Join Amanda and myself for a weekend of interactive, supportive flash writing on the Flash Weekender from April 17th -19th. Then we have a 2 weekend Memoir-in-Flash course from May 8th – 10th and May 15th – 17th. We then have a month of wonderful prompts for the whole of June in our first Micro Fiction Month!

Mary-Jane Holmes has work included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Her microfiction has recently been included in Best Microfictions 2020. A twice nominated Forward Prize nominee and Hawthornden Fellow, Mary-Jane has won The Bath Novella-in-Flash Prize 2020, the Bridport, Martin Starkie, Dromineer, Reflex Fiction and Mslexia Flash Fiction prize, plus the  International Bedford Poetry competition.

She has been shortlisted and commended for many more including the Beverley International Prize for Literature 2020, The Troubadour and Oxford Brookes Poetry prize 2019. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize in 2020. Mary-Jane’s debut poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. She enjoys teaching creative writing both online and in person (when possible) around the world. She holds an Mst (distinction) in Creative Writing from Kellogg College Oxford and is currently working on a PhD at Newcastle University. @emjayinthedale  www.mary-janeholmes.com

 

Why Black Swans Make for Great Stories

In 1696, Willem de Vlamingh, a skipper for the Dutch East India Co., was sent from his native Holland to Australia to look for survivors of a ship thought to have been wrecked on the continent’s west coast. Despite all his efforts, he never found the vessel or any of its crew but he did come across something else: the presence of black swans.  Many strange and exotic species were being discovered in these uncharted territories at the time but this sighting was of particular importance, for up to this point in history it was thought that only white swans existed. So adamant was this belief that a popular proverb had circulated in Europe since the Roman satirist Juvenal wrote in 82 AD : rara avis in terris nigroque simillima cygno ( a rare bird in the lands, and very like a black swan). This term was used ironically, in the same way that today we talk of pigs flying or pink elephants. The black swan was a metaphor for all that could not exist, until of course, due to an intrepid sailor, the impossible became possible. Once this happened the term’s meaning transformed: the black swan became a symbol of the improbable. In these times Corona Virus is seen as a black swan.

But what has this got to do with writing Flash Fiction? Well, quite a lot actually. The improbable, the random, the unexpected are what drive stories. If we followed a character that went about his or her daily business without a deflection of any kind we wouldn’t muster much narrative tension or impetus but when we lift that character out of certainty, introduce a glitch, a challenge to the status quo, then we assert enough pressure on them to reveal something insightful to the reader.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his book The Black Swan, The Impact of the Highly Improbable, and his subsequent books, his latest being Skin in the Game explores this idea by looking at how society deals with seemingly random happenings and suggests ways to make our world black-swan-robust, in other words a society where we reduce the impact of events such as the market crash of 1987, or CV-19 and exploit the positive ones such as the internet.

Taleb defines the phenomena as something that:

  1. is a surprise to the observer,
  2. has an impact on their life,
  3. but with hindsight could have been expected.

These three criteria mirror closely the ingredients that a story moves through – conflict (surprise), deflection (impact) and resolution. The last condition is particularly interesting; this idea that the event was predictable. From the relative privilege of retrospection, we can work out the reason why wars start, why empires collapse, why economies crash. Often, the mark of a successful story is how, when looking back over the series of actions and choices the character has undergone, the outcome feels inevitable. With hindsight we say ‘of course!’ rather than ‘where did that come from’?

Whereas in the real world we strive to reduce the impact of negative black swan events, as writers we want to harness their power. Of course, this is Flash and whatever surprise we present the observer/character, it has to be kept to scale so here’s an exercise[1] in Black Swan generation:

Start with a character immersed in their daily routine and have them find a physical object which threatens their status quo either physically or emotionally. Keep the setting small – a room, the car, the garden shed, a cupboard. The object should create a strong reaction in the character, strong enough to change the course of their trajectory within the scene you have placed them in and act as a conduit to reveal something meaningful to both the protagonist and the reader. For example, a woman racked with remorse for an affair she had years ago, finds an earring in her husband’s sock drawer. And of course the outcome needs to fit within the whole; however slight or subtle, every twist and turn of the action must support the ending.

This idea of randomness and uncertainty can help in the creative process of writing itself. Much of the art of storytelling involves making connections between details that don’t seem to have any link. It is the tension created in this process that causes the reader to think “I must know how this is resolved.” If you are struggling for inspiration try developing a story combining a character from one of your story ideas with a predicament or setting from another. This may be enough to produce that single and interesting rare action that will push your character and story deeper. If you are at a loss for a seed idea, use a plot generator site (there are a variety of them on the web) for the same reason.

And remember that creativity thrives in the impossible. What you might think is difficult to achieve today will no-doubt become possible in the future and that includes producing a crafted and original work of flash fiction. So persist and you too will create your own positive Black Swan.

Join Amanda and myself for a weekend of interactive, supportive flash writing April 17th -19th. Then we have a 2 weekend memoir-in-flash course May 8th – 10th and May 15th – 17th. We then have a month of wonderful prompts for the whole month of June! More details here: https://www.retreatwest.co.uk/online-writing-courses/

Mary-Jane Holmes has work included in The Best Small Fictions Anthology in 2016, 2018 and 2020. Her microfiction has recently been included in Best Microfictions 2019. A twice nominated Forward Prize nominee and Hawthornden Fellow, Mary-Jane has won the Bridport, Martin Starkie, Dromineer, Reflex Fiction and Mslexia prizes, and International Bedford Poetry competition as well as being shortlisted and commended for many more including the Beverley International Prize for Literature 2020, The Troubadour and Oxford Brookes Poetry prize. She was long-listed for the National Poetry Prize this year. Mary-Jane’s debut poetry collection Heliotrope with Matches and Magnifying Glass is published by Pindrop Press. She enjoys teaching creative writing both online and in person (when possible) around the world. She holds an Mst (distinction) in Creative Writing from Kellogg College Oxford and is currently working on a PhD at Newcastle University. @emjayinthedale  www.mary-janeholmes.com

[1] Adapted from Michelle Brook’s Rattlesnake In The Drawer writing exercise

 

New comp: Win flash writing courses and writing maps

It’s been a while since we had a one-off comp to win a place on our courses so here we are with a new one! We’ve also got some gorgeous Writing Maps as a prize too.

What can you win?

  • 1st Prize: A place on the group online Fantastic Flashing Course (3-16th June 2019)
  • 2nd Prize: The start anytime work alone online Fantastic Flashing Course
  • 3rd Prize: 2 Writing Maps – The Description Writing Map and The Voice and Point of View Writing Map
  • All winning stories get published on the website.

 

Who chooses the winner?

Amanda Saint – novelist, short fiction writer, creative writing tutor and publisher at Retreat West.

How do you win?

You write something of course! Send us your flash stories from the prompt.

What is the prompt?

This picture:

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s the word limit?

Max 300 words. No minimum.

What’s the deadline?

23.59 on 28th April 2019

What’s the entry fee?

£6

How do you enter?

Through Submittable using this button:

Enter the comp

 

We look forward to reading your submissions!

 

Author Interview: CM Taylor on writing within theme, Brexit and his new novel Staying On

It’s great to have CM Taylor back on the blog on publication day for his new novel, Staying On. I was lucky enough to read an advance copy of this and I stayed up half the night to find out what would happen. It’s a funny and very moving (I cried!) story of a family that needs to face up to its past – a situation that’s brought to a head when Brexit comes along and their life in Spain no longer seems quite so sunny.

Craig, in the teaching you do, theme is a crucial element in guiding the story and the theme for me that came through strongly in Staying On is guilt and culpability. How it manifests, the twisted nature of it that makes people believe different things about the same situation. What made you want to explore this theme in this novel?

Shouldn’t a book in the final instance be about something – have a take on the world, an angle, something to say about how people are, how the world is? That’s what strong theme gives you.

One of the things I write and teach about is the idea that narrative art maps human change, and that characters in stories move from the denial and repression of certain feelings, into the awareness and exploration of those feelings, and then on to acting on them – either positively or negatively.

When you say there’s a strong element of guilt and culpability in the book, it’s true, and that to me is part of character development and theme, of how character carries theme across story, beginning with denial, (“It wasn’t me.” “That’s not how it was.” “It didn’t happen.” “I haven’t got a problem.” “There’s nothing to see here.”), moving into flashes of light, (“Maybe there is a problem.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.” “Maybe there is something I need to look at.”), then into acceptance or conscious surfacing, (“God, I do have an issue here.” “There is something I need to look.” “Maybe I did do something wrong.”), and on into being galvanised, (“I really do need to apologise.” “I really do need to make that clear.” “I do really need to tell the truth.”).

People use denial as self-protection. People lie to themselves about the things which are hardest to entertain. But denial has consequences. If you lie to yourself about one thing it seeps over into other things and leads to moral corruption. As Saul Bellow wrote: “Everybody knows there is no fineness or accuracy of suppression; if you hold down one thing, you hold down the adjoining.” Denial surfaces elsewhere in many negative ways, it squirts out hot and sideways into anger, addiction, failed intimacy, extreme competitiveness, self-harm.

I don’t think that this gap between how different characters see things, or the gap between how a character sees things and how it really was, is necessarily just a theme of this novel, I think it’s a part of every character for me, because it’s part of this journey from denial and repression to acceptance and action. Human change has a pattern and self-deceit is part of that pattern. Guilt is an aspect of repression, and accepting your culpability is a stage on the road to accepting the world as it is.

One of your main characters, Tony, is adept at not saying the things that really matter and putting a brave face on things. Never letting people know what’s really going on behind that bright surface. Did you know when you set out how things would turn out for Tony or did he take you places you hadn’t planned?

As above, Tony – as with us all – is on a journey from repression and denial to (ideally) expression and health. Crucial with Tony on his particular journey is his generation, which is that post-war generation, brought up in a world where emotional connection was scarce and rationed. Imagine being a kid where most adults around you had PTSD and didn’t even know it. Jesus. Decode that. And many of that generation, those post-war babies, tend towards the stoic and repressed. They’re very non-presumptive. Or they can be.

So Tony’s particular brand of suppression is influenced by that generation. That’s in the mix, but then it’s also just him. I know lots of older people, volubly acting out their fear and confusion at the world through anger and nostalgia, but then I also know a lot of older people, like Tony, who radically suppress their own needs – sublimating their impulses and being less clamorous, living for other people. I find it beautiful and generous. That said – and this is the rub of Tony’s dilemma – there come points in life where you need to say, “No. I need something here. I need sustenance and nourishment. I can’t suppress my own needs all the time.”

And that’s Tony’s dilemma, a modest, sweet guy who’d always put himself second, who urgently must realise that if he puts himself second again, then there’s going to be none of him left. That’s hard. Especially when you have no skills, no practice in putting yourself first, and all the social and emotional grooves in your life run against it, run for decades against what you now must do.

All that is in the mix with Tony. I knew he was repressing, and I knew what he was repressing, and I knew that it would have to blossom for him to have his emotional denouement, but I didn’t necessarily know how that was going to happen. I knew the suppression but not the expression. He had that wriggle room.

Tony’s story of dealing with a failing business alongside family dramas is told with humour and at the same time is also very moving, it is sad and hopeful and funny and melancholy, and really very true about what it is to be human today. As writers, this is something we all aspire to achieve in the novels we write so what advice can you give to the readers of the blog on how they can create such compelling narratives within what appears to be, on the surface, just an everyday story of a family.

Stay right behind the eyes of your characters and process what events mean for them. There are high stakes in everyone’s life. Success, failure, love, rejection, hope, desire. Are people going to get what they want? Are they going be rejected and not get what they want? Are they going to learn or keep making the same mistakes?

The trick to making an ostensibly everyday story compelling is to dwell on the internal, on the emotional stakes at play. The word, “No,” might be a single word of dialogue externally, but internally it might mean, “Everyone always says no to me.” Or it might mean, “I am never going to get what I want.” Or it might mean, “Right, I had enough of people saying no and now I’m on the march.”

The key to rendering everyday situations into dramatic material is to dwell behind the eyes of the protagonist of the scene, to show the emotional stakes, and to show at what point this person is in the development from repression and denial to expression – to show how does the moment charge that journey. Does it crush them into further repression? Push them over into expression and self-activation?

What is at stake? How does it move the journey? Find that and you have found drama.

With Brexit coming very soon this is a very timely story but the politics of the situation are largely irrelevant in this family’s life as they face up to the past in order to discover if they can have a happier future. Do you think despite the large role politics plays in the collective psyche, mainly due to the way it’s presented in the media, that this is true for us all. That it’s the human stories that go on irrelevant of what the politicians are doing, that really matter to people? 

Well Brexit gets things going, because the book is about a British expat couple in Spain who wonder if they might get kicked out. One of them, Laney, wants to stay in Spain, and one of them, Tony, wants to go home to England. And Brexit puts pressure on that, because Tony is emboldened from his meekness by the situation with Brexit, whereas with Laney her reasons for wanting to stay now appear more flimsy and unlikely. So, the larger political situation acts as a trigger for the internal repressions of the main characters, plus it brings to the surface the subterranean conflicts locked into their marriage. It brings things to the boil.

As to whether it is more human stories that really matter to people, well the book-reading public is a broad church, and political non-fiction is selling well, while political fiction – which is hard to do without coming across as hectoring or didactic – can sometimes do well. So, I think some people want work which is in-tune to the internal verities of love and relationships and self-development, whereas others seek more politically-attuned work. Personally, I want both.

But a strong aspect of the art of the novel is its ability to offer a sense of human closeness, and I strongly wanted to tell a personal story about Brexit, away from the headlines and the slogans and the politicians, to show how normal folk trapped in a normal situation were being affected by a broader political situation, and how crucially it mapped onto issues with their own pasts, and their own relationships. So, yes, I focused on the personal, the internal, because I believe that is the strongest suit of the art of the novel. Though as I say above, seminal political fiction has been written – it is just most obtrusively political fiction is sophomore and partisan and dull.

Now that Tony and Laney’s story has gone out in the world, what are you writing next?

Oh God, this question. It may make me cry.

Well, in no particular order, I’ve just finished the final draft of a TV pilot based on one of my novels. And I’ve been commissioned to co-write a movie which I can’t really say too much about, so I’m tucking into the first draft of that. And I’ve had interest in republishing a couple of my early novels, so I just spent a few days giving them a haircut, purging them of juvenilia, before sending them out. Then, because I’ve got a book coming out, I’m writing blog posts and articles.

And yes, by now you can see that I’m avoiding the real intent of the question. I’m repressing the truth through guilt! And there’s a reason for that. I’m developing two novels simultaneously, and I haven’t worked out which one I want to lead with. One is a character-led thriller series, quite socially realistic, and the other is a stand-alone tech thriller, more heightened, but again character-led. I’m flip-flopping between these two and am not sure which one of these two works of fiction will emerge as my next book, to be quite honest.

***

Thanks for giving us this insight into your new novel and your writing tips, Craig.

Keep up to date with Craig’s many writing project on his website. Get your copy of Staying On on Amazon or Waterstones.