Tag Archives: stories

A real treat for fiction writers

I’ve just finished reading Donald Maass’s book, The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surfaceand I absolutely loved it! The writing is so clear and thoughtful.

Donald Maass first came onto my radar as a brilliant writer for writers at a Scattered Authors’ retreat several years ago, when ace children’s and YA author, Linda Newbery, recommended his Writing the Breakout Novel. The premise there is that you can give a good novel bestselling potential by focusing on universal themes, such as ‘the fight for justice’. Those universal themes and archetypes will be there in your writing inevitably on the unconscious level, but Maass encourages authors to see how it feels to put them front and centre.

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In The Emotional Craft of Fiction: How to Write the Story Beneath the Surface, he looks at plotting, not in terms of action, as a sequence of events, but starting from the deepest psychological needs of the main characters – the inner journey.

Again, this isn’t something writers don’t already know about – we all think in terms of both action and psychological plot – the difference here is that he starts from the inner journey and focuses on that entirely. It’s a question of slightly changing the angle you’re looking at things from.

The book is packed with practical exercises you can apply to your work-in-progress, and those have really helped me define the meaning and importance of what’s going on for my protagonist.

Coincidentally, I noticed The Writing Retreat had a workshop on Finding your Story Through Theme last weekend, and that gave me a chance to simplify and clarify the ideas I was thinking about from Maas’s book. Their retreats are another thing I’d highly recommend!

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The Writing Retreat choose great venues too – this one was at Mylor Yacht Club

Thinking in terms of theme helps you decide what action needs to be in the story and what doesn’t contribute enough emotionally, so if your plot is getting in a muddle, it might be helpful to focus more closely on why everything that happens in your story matters.

That will help you get a killer opening and deliver a really satisfying ending too.

I love reading books about writing – and writing about writing. My latest manuscript is a quick read – under 10,000 words in short sections – brief thoughts and insights – and I could really do with a few more beta readers, if possible. Please email me if you’d be up for that,  author@jennyalexander.co.uk Many thanks indeed!

Using creativity to make life better

We were discussing the Senoi method for tackling nightmares in last week’s session of Writing in the House of Dreams, when someone said, ‘We ought to be teaching this to children in schools!’

The Senoi technique is described by Patricia Garfield in her fascinating book, Creative Dreaming – that’s where I first came across it. When you go to sleep, you intend that if you have a bad dream you will confront the difficulty, face down the enemy, and claim a reward.

If you wake before your dream has reached a positive outcome, you either go back to sleep and continue the dream or else complete it in imagination.

You don’t need to be lucid within the dream, so it’s a very easy practice that anyone can begin, and if you always bring your dreams to a positive outcome you set a track in your mind that your dreams will soon automatically follow, resolving themselves before you awake.

It’s obvious that not having unresolved nightmares is a way of making your dream experience better, but the goal of Senoi dreaming isn’t just to make your dream life better – it’s to make your waking life better as well. So how does that work?

When you deliberately face up to challenges and create positive outcomes in your dreams or imagination, you experience yourself as an effective and courageous person. Then when you’re faced with challenges in waking life, that’s the person you know you can be – someone whose first response to difficulties is ‘I can sort this!’

I shouldn’t think we’ll ever see creative dream skills in the national curriculum but I believe children could get the same benefits from learning to write stories.

The Senoi approach is basically the Hero’s Journey. The hero crosses the threshold into the unfamiliar world, meets enemies and falters, before finally facing up to them and claiming her reward to bring back to the ordinary world.

This story is the mythic template for all our stories. Every new experience starts with crossing the threshold into the unfamiliar and making the hero journey, from starting a new relationship or job to small things such as making a phone call or trying a new restaurant.

In the past, creative writing was part of the school curriculum – I don’t mean analysing styles and all that kind of thing, but properly diving into imagination, every child different, every story unique.

Writing stories is joyful, exciting and empowering. I wish we could have more truly creative writing on the curriculum because, in my view, it wouldn’t only make children’s experience of school better – it would, like creative dreaming, make the rest of their life better too.



Why we need to tell our stories

I wasn’t going to write any more posts about depression and suicide, but I’ve been thinking this week about a writer I knew, Jonny Zucker, who killed himself last year.

Jonny’s family have just announced the Striker Boy campaign, in which they are donating all proceeds of a new edition of one of his books to the mental health charity, Mind.

When Jonny died, the tributes and memories that poured in all said very similar things. How generous he was, how full of energy and enthusiasm, how funny, and how very loved.

So often, those who take their own lives seem to be bright stars like him, people who have touched other people’s lives in one way or another, but don’t seem to have understood how amazing they are.

So here I am, thinking and talking about suicide again, wishing like everyone must, that there was some way of reaching across the dreadful chasm that can open up around a person and swallow them down.

I don’t think we can convince somebody thinking about suicide how wonderful and loved they are, or how much they matter. Even if we could, would that be enough to reach across the chasm and hold onto them?

Certainly, we can make sure the people around us know we are there for them, and will listen in a non-judging way, if they ever need someone to turn to. We can avoid saying unhelpful things that will make the person feel even worse, such as ‘I don’t know why you’re so hard on yourself’ or ‘Why don’t you just snap out of it?’ But not everyone is actually able to talk about it when they’re struggling with depression.

My feeling is that the biggest thing we can do for each other is be honest and not hide our own darkness. Sadness, feelings of pointlessness, even despair, are all part of the human condition, although that goes against our cultural assumptions.

We think we should be able to be happy all the time and every kind of pain is – or certainly should be – fixable. In our culture, unhappiness feels like failure, and we’re ashamed of owning up to it.

But the golden life is an illusion. We shouldn’t be claiming it while hiding our own darkness, because that make the darkness even more terrifying and lonely for people currently going through it.

What we need to recognise and especially to teach our children is that everyone experiences sadness, fear, despair… it’s natural. Life can be hard, but we can learn to handle it. This is the message in all my kids’ self-help books, including How 2B Happy.

I don’t mean I think we should bang on about our problems all the time, but just be real with each other. Real life stories belong to all of us; they lift us above our own situation and show us our wider human condition. They give us a sense of belonging.

A member of Jonny’s family commented, ‘Mental health needs to be discussed in the open and these personal stories need to be shared.’

I could not agree more.

If you would like to buy a copy of Jonny’s book, the new special edition comes out on October 6th. 






How to have dreams that you can understand

Last week I described a dream I had when I was planning my writing projects for 2014, whose meaning was absolutely obvious. In that dream, I diverted from following Deborah Meaden on the path to the station and felt wonderfully happy on the beach.

Happy on the beach
Happy on the beach

I’d been thinking I should pitch some projects for the market rather than follow my writer’s heart into probable penury with a self-publishing project and an idea for a book I almost certainly couldn’t sell to mainstream publishers, so the meaning of my dream was very clear.

Just to make sure I got the message, I had a second dream in which I woke up to find I had been sleeping on the beach, and as I lay there blinking in the bright morning sunshine I saw a baby playing on the sand right in front of me, happily absorbed, the two of us drawn together in a moment of pure magic.

Hearing a sudden sound of voices, I looked round in time to see the big double doors of the public hall at the top of the beach thrown open. A very successful author I know came out, surrounded by press people and fans. She had been doing an event at the literary festival in the hall. She was beaming under a truly fabulous blue hat.

I waved and shouted hello, and she waved back. I felt delighted for her, because she loved doing major events. A second author I know came out, also dressed beautifully and wreathed in smiles. I waved and felt happy for her too, but I was glad it wasn’t me doing festivals in fabulous hats. The sun was warm on my face, and I looked back at the baby, who was now watching me with intense interest. She had a pebble in her little fist that she held out to me.

It was very easy to understand where these dreams came from, as I was totally preoccupied in waking life with what direction to take with my writing this year. Most dreams are story versions of waking-life events and concerns, and if you have one thing in particular that’s occupying your mind the connection is often obvious. People involved in research or creative projects will commonly have dreams that develop and resolve problems they are working on.

In normal life we aren’t usually so intensely preoccupied with one major question or concern – our energies are more dispersed and the connection between the minor ups and downs of waking life and the world of our dreams can be more difficult to spot. One way of having dreams you can understand is if you narrow your focus through dream incubation.

Before you go to sleep, think back over your day and notice anything that’s been bothering you, any decisions you need to make, any problems you need to resolve. Choose one and ask for a dream about it. Promise yourself that whatever dreams you have, you will record in full, because often in the first moments of waking we’ll dismiss a dream without bothering to write it down if we can’t immediately see the meaning or importance of it.

Although the rational mind works instantly, in the symbolic mind, meaning takes time to unfold, and a dream that has seemed random on waking might, on re-reading later in the day, surprise us with its resonances.

Sometimes when you have incubated a dream it will be easy to see the connection between your daytime situation and the dream. Other times, you may ponder it, put the dream to one side and get the a-ha moment later. Or if you ask for another dream about it you may have one the next night that makes things clearer.

Incubating dreams in this way means you are thinking about your day life instead of just living it; you’re noticing the way your mind is organising experience into stories, so that it’s easier to see when dreams are carrying the story on.

Setting up dreaming intentions means your waking ‘I’ is communicating with your dream, and very soon you’ll find your dream is answering back.  If you want to understand the answer to what it means, it really helps to know the question in advance.

You can find a bit more about dream incubation here

Have you ever incubated a dream?

Mind-magic for writers – harnessing the power of the circle

The circle is an archetype for wholeness and integration, a universal pattern in nature and the human psyche which is also a template for the stories of life and fiction. You can use the  power of the circle archetype in writing, deliberately placing it in your mind by making mandalas.

The Power of the World always works in circles, and everything tries to be round. The sky is round, and I have heard that the earth is round like a ball, and so are all the stars. The wind, in its greatest power, whirls. Birds make their nests in circles, for theirs is the same religion as ours. Even the seasons form a great circle in their changing, and always come back again to where they were. The life of a man is a circle from childhood to childhood, and so it is in everything where power moves ~ Black Elk

Ice in a circular hollow

Stories naturally make circles. The protagonist sets off, achieves or learns something in the course of the action, and returns changed. Often the work of redrafting is about refining the beginning and ending to tie everything into a satisfying whole. The crafting of a story is a process of perfecting the circle.

Dorothea Brande (‘Becoming a Writer’) says the unconscious is not only the source of our creativity, but also the home of form. This is why, when you have plot problems, new ways of fitting things together can naturally spring up in your mind as soon as you stop consciously trying to force them.

When I’m planning or redrafting a story I will often draw mandalas while I ponder.

One of my working mandalas
One of my working mandalas

‘Mandala’ comes from the Sanskrit word meaning ‘circle.’ It signifies a geometrical pattern based on a circle, and it’s used in every spiritual tradition as a focus for contemplation, meditation, protection, healing or prayer.

In its most basic form, the mandala is a simple circle, and if you’d like to try making some you can start by drawing circles. I recommend you do this free-hand, although your first attempts may look like lumpy lozenges. Keep working at it until you can do one that looks reasonably round. The process of this will anyway help attune your mind to the archetype.

When you have drawn your circle, you can incorporate other geometrical forms into it and around it. You could put a triangle inside it, crossed by another triangle to make a six-pointed star. You could put your circle inside a square, or squares inside your circle.

Choose any geometrical shapes you like, but try to achieve balance, so that the sides and segments of the circle are the same. Drawing geometric shapes also settles your mind into the beautiful reality of numbers. 

Treat the whole process like doodling, not trying to create art, but simply to play and allow your mind to idle. Keep building mandalas until you get one you really like.

Shading or colouring your mandala is a way of staying with the archetype for longer, and allowing it to work upon you. When you have finished, bring the energy of the circle with you into your writing. Bear it in mind as a template for your story, and see whether it gives you a greater sense of direction and clarity.

 What creative activities do you use as part of your writing process?

Check out these lovely prayer-flag mandalas by Toko-pa Turner http://toko-pa.com/2013/11/29/mandalas/

The gifts of writing – 3

So Christmas is nearly here, this great celebration of loving and giving – the perfect time to talk about the third gift that writing gives us, the gift of empathy.

When I wrote my children’s book about writing, How to be a Brilliant Writer, I asked my friends in the Scattered Authors Society if they would like to send me a few sentences on what they loved about writing. This is what Enid Richmont sent me:

A writing game I sometimes play when I’m trying to bring one of my characters to life is body-swapping! I pick a stranger – in the bus perhaps, or the supermarket – then I try to become that person. I feel the wrinkles on my skin, I walk with a limp, I look at my long scarlet fingernails or I run my fingers over my shiny bald head. Right now, I’m being a squirrel! I like to think, as well, that ‘becoming’ other people, or creatures, also helps me to understand them.

In fiction, we create characters and give them big problems to deal with. There’s always going to be struggle, conflict, pain because if everyone’s happy there’s no impulse for change, no movement, no story.

As we imagine what it feels like to be homeless, or orphaned, or bullied, or bereft, we feel everything our character is feeling – we have to, because otherwise we can’t know how they will behave, and our story will feel hollow and unconvincing.

It takes emotional toughness to do this work, and everyone has to find their own way. I personally have usually opted to put my characters in situations that are difficult but not overwhelming, and I use humour to leaven the hard parts. If my reader – and I – feel like crying at times, I want to make them feel like laughing too.

Other authors I know are braver and tougher than me, going into dark areas of experience such as criminal gangs, drugs, self-harming, eating disorders, abuse – which are part of real life that older children need to know about, and reading serious fiction by responsible authors is probably the safest way of gaining this knowledge.

Writers are used to imagining another person’s story, looking beneath the surface, feeling their joys and pains.  We do it in imagination, and that spills over into real life. I think that’s why most writers I know enjoy hanging out in cafes on their own, people-watching.

I like to think, as Enid says, that ‘becoming’ other people might help us to learn to be less quick to judge and more aware that sometimes it can take real courage and faith to get through the vicissitudes of even an ordinary life.

So there they are – stillness, awareness, empathy –  the three greatest gifts I think I get from writing. What does writing give to you?          

Our stories, our selves

My work is emotionally autobiographical. It has no relationship to the actual events of my life, but it reflects the emotional currents of my life ~Tennessee Williams

This quotation from Tenessee Williams seems to me to encapsulate where dreams and creative writing are the same.

Being literal-minded, if we try to relate the writing to the author we only do it in a direct way, wondering whether the people in the story are based on real people or the events are things the author has actually experienced.

We do the same with dreams, especially if we focus only on the symbols and not the emotions.

But even where we don’t find any obvious connection between the story and the author, the dream and the dreamer, it is powerfully there because dreams, like fiction, are simply story-versions of the dreamer’s or author’s emotional experiences.

Have you ever written a story that seemed to have nothing to do with your own life, only to realise later that it was ’emotionally autobiographical’?

The joy of writing

Last week I was talking about the comfort of dreams, and how dreaming can provide pleasurable experiences for the self which may be ‘only dreams’ in waking life.

This happens spontaneously, but we can replay and deliberately go back into such dreams either in daytime fantasies or as we fall asleep.

Writing can work in the same way, which I’m particularly thankful for at times when I’m not sleeping well. If I feel out of sorts with the world for any reason, and maybe my mind’s gone into overdrive, I’ll get up and write for two or three hours in the middle of the night.

I’ve had a couple of nights like that this week, when I’ve made myself a cup of tea  and left the cares and irritations of my daily life to immerse myself in Maddy Monday’s, whose world is colourful, lively and distracting.

My bright and delightful work-in-progress

The joy of writing is that we can choose the worlds we wish to inhabit during the writing time, and even though we will meet all sorts of challenges and difficulties in those worlds – no problem, no story – we are always able to solve them.

Sweet dreams everyone, this week – or failing that, happy writing!

What happens on an Arvon writing course?

Last week I was co-tutoring a ‘Writing for Children’ course with Malachy Doyle at Totleigh Barton, the Arvon Foundation’s house in Devon.

Totleigh Barton
Totleigh Barton

Arvon courses run from Monday afternoon to Saturday morning and they follow a tried-and-tested format

  • a 3-hour writing workshop every morning
  • individual tutorials in the afternoons
  • talks and readings in the evenings from both the tutors, a visiting guest and on the final night, the course participants
  • free time for writing and socialising

Each participant helps with preparing a meal and washing up once during the week, using simple recipes and ingredients provided by the centre staff.

Meals at Totleigh include delicious local produce and vegetables from the garden
Meals at Totleigh include delicious local produce and vegetables from the garden

That’s the basic formula, but every course is different, depending on the group and the tutors. Ours included lots of things that weren’t in the programme, such as

  • extra tutorials, as the group was small due to people getting snowed in at home
  • long muddy walks in the beautiful surrounding countryside
  • an evening of very funny games and charades
  • a Burns supper with one of the centre’s directors reading ‘fair chieftain o’ the puddin’ race’ and Malachy regaling us at table with some of Rabbie’s songs
  • the reading to the whole group of a picture book written by two of the participants explaining what they had learnt during the week through the medium of story – the tragic, indeed shocking story of Milo the dog and Ben the chick
Malachy Doyle with his big book of Robbie Burns songs
Malachy Doyle with his big book of Robbie Burns songs

You can learn an amazing amount in a single focused week, away from the work and worries of everyday life; you can enjoy conversations about writing with people who feel as passionately about it as you do yourself. You can also have a lot of fun.

If you get a chance to go on an Arvon course, I’d say grab it with both hands. I’ve been on two myself since my first book came out, and I’d recommend it to writers at every stage from complete beginners to published authors.

Have you ever been on an Arvon Foundation course? What were the best and worst things about it?

Unravelling the mystery of the five-point character sketch

Years ago a tutor on a Society of Authors Arvon residential gave us a five-point character sketch, which I’ve used as a first way in ever since, although the fifth point always puzzled me.

Point 1: Name
Choose a name for your character, bearing in mind that names carry information about, for example, age and social background. They also carry more subtle nuances, suggesting a kind of personality and way of being.

Point 2: Their appearance
Age, hair colour, eyes, build, style… one or two points that give you a glimpse of your character

Point 3: Something they love
This might be any kind of thing, from dishonesty to travel, from football to cottage pie. Just the first thing that comes into your head

Point 4: Something they hate
As above

So far, so straightforward, but then there’s Point 5…

Point 5: Their special object
I interpreted this as meaning something you would always associate with them – maybe a physical mannerism such as a limp or an affectation of speech, or something they usually had with them like a dog or cat, or favourite piece of jewellery. But I don’t think most people have a special object such as that, so I always struggled to find one for my characters.

Then when I was tidying up after Christmas I was putting a fallen angel back into my fireplace wall when I suddenly thought, all these objects are special to me.

The angel that fell
The angel that fell

There’s the penny-size Thomas the Tank Engine I found in the edge of the sea the summer I spent in the beach cafe writing Peony Pinker. The Christmas cracker car one of my kids gave me when I was writing Car-mad Jack. The champagne bottle candle from a twenty-first birthday cake. The Incredible Hulk who was here in the house when I arrived, and the angel I found in a drawer in an empty house once when I was close to despair. The sewn heart a sweet friend I’ve never met sent to me last year. The teddy-bear my daughter won at the amusements arcade on a family day down at Looe. To mention but a few.

The little teddy bear from Looe
The little teddy bear from Looe

And I suddenly thought of the five-point character sketch, realising that it doesn’t have to be one definitive special object. It can be any object at all that has emotional resonance and meaning for you.

Any object my character feels is special to them will do for point number 5. Or a scattering of small objects like the ones in my fireplace wall, which tell so much of the story of me.