from BARDO

The stars are in our belly; the Milky Way our umbilicus.

Is it a consolation that the stuff of which we’re made

is star-stuff too?

– That wherever you go you can never fully disappear –

dispersal only: carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen.

Tree, rain, coal, glow-worm, horse, gnat, rock.

Roselle Angwin

Monday, 31 July 2017


One of the lovely things about my work as a course facilitator is the variety. My 'default' writing focus and also that of my courses has been largely, the last few years, the connections between wild and the soul, through place and story, myth and poetry; the foundation of my writing and life, as well.

From time to time, though, for various reasons things conspire for me to focus on a specific aspect of writing, and lately it's been fiction and its requirements.

I mentor a few people who are progressing their novels; it's always a joy to see the way these books grow and develop almost into living beings in their creation. It's an honour to be part of the midwifing process.

I've written for quite a long time for the excellent MsLexia women's writing magazine; initially as a regular columnist but continuingly as an occasional contributor. One of their new initiatives is online groups under the guidance of an established writer. I've been mentoring two groups of women short story writers and novelists, and have been excited to be part of this: the writing is good, and the peer feedback on the other participants' work has been generous, incisive and helpful.

Another new initiative is to offer to writing groups a workshop led by a tutor chosen by MsLexia. 

I was delighted to present such a workshop as an intensive morning on aspects of the novel and the general requirements of fiction last Friday, in the lovely market town of Bridport in Dorset. The drive was pretty – I used to do it a lot, especially in the days when I was poet-in-residence at Sherborne Boys' School (an illuminating and very positive experience, somewhat to my surprise). This time, though, it was rather marred by the fact that my car, only back last week from the repairing of a broken rear axle (no, I don't know how I did it!), developed a serious engine problem which meant that instead of having a quiet walk on the coast I waited in a car park for four hours to be towed back to South Devon.

No matter. I loved working with 23 other women wrestling plot ideas into a good narrative trajectory, as they say, and I remembered how much I like working with very specific structuring given that much of my work is a lot more fluid and 'right brain'. 

I dug out notes from my very first 'Write a Novel in Nine Months' course, offered in Plymouth in 1998 (and featured in The Guardian on World Book Day of that year). The course became a book, Creative Novel Writing, and morphed into 6-month and weekend courses. (Currently, it exists as an online course, Storymaking.)

We looked at the core theme of each person's story, and how this translates into the central 'problem' of the book. It's useful to ask 'What is the key question of my story?'

We looked at the difference between story and plot: E M Forster says that story is simply the chronological unfolding of events: this happened, then that happened, and then that. 'The king died; then the queen died.' Plot, he says, is the consequences of the events; the psychological impact of cause and effect. 'The king died, then the queen died of grief.' Plot is the humanness of the story; the portrayal of our interrelationships, our hopes and losses, tragedies and joys.

I find this a helpful definition: if theme is the why, story is the what, and plot is the how.

We also managed to fit in some writing of an action scene, to compare the dynamics of, firstly, the straight narration of the unfolding of events; then the same scene conveyed entirely in dialogue; the final stage is of course to interweave the best of both.

It was good for me to think so concentratedly about the requirements and demands of fiction and its structures and dynamics, and it's been good also to work in the online forums (fora) with younger novelists and to see the trends in current fiction (rather a lot more darkness, gore and horrors, I notice, in some novels than I'd choose to read, but I guess indicative of the insecurities, terrors and troubles of our times. Some of the work coming through is also very thought-provoking, in the best ways.)

After a very intensive month it was also good, last night, to start to read through the pile of papers on my desk. A few metres down (I exaggerate, but not by much) I came across the Saturday Review from the Guardian of 8 April this year, unread.

I was interested to find Justine Jordan's interview with Jon McGregor, whose first novel (at age 26, and Booker longlisted) If Nobody Speak of Remarkable Things was a remarkable book, and one that I found moving.

If you're a novelist, you might be reassured, as I was in relation to my own back-and-forth and in-and-out process of writing a book, by what he said of the apparent chaos and unstructured first-draft writing of his latest book, Reservoir 13: 'He wrote the book out of sequence, getting down all the scenes about individual families, and then all the lines about blackbirds, foxes, reservoirs and so on, storing the sections in a ring binder. "Then I went back and cut it all up and rearranged it. There was a point when it was purely collage."'

This is what I've been doing with my own book written in and about a Brittany forest; and I really have got to the point where – sorry – I can't see the wood for the trees. Or do I mean the trees for the wood?

McGregor's new novel has been given in its final shape a very tight structure: written in sections of a month at a time, each consisting only of two or three pages. This has meant that 'the "very rhythmical, fixed structure" he'd imposed on himself meant he "couldn't do what your instinct as a writer would normally be to do, to dwell on the dramatic focus and skip over the less dramatic times".'

Setting oneself a structure, or tight framework, in a novel can of course be restrictive; but as in writing poetry in form rather than free verse, such a constraint can force you to think and write in new ways. I find myself as inspired by the many different ways to structure a novel (one of my students is writing a book that consists of just letters, and only from one person) as I am by the variety of my tutoring work.

Speaking of which, I'm finally allowed to announce that I've been awarded one of two National Trust/Literature Works writing residencies this autumn: one is Hardy's Cottage, in Dorset; the other, mine, is the former home of Agatha Christie on the banks of the Dart. Bliss – to work with visitors in such an inspiring place; and to be able to concentrate on my own new writing for three months.

Am I likely to start writing crime fiction? Seems unlikely. But who knows; watch this space.

Certainly I do feel the need to step sideways, creatively, from my habitual modes of expression. Perhaps I'll follow the lead of B S Johnson's novel The Unfortunates, written way back in antediluvian times (1969), and present a series of vignettes in a box:

'“The Unfortunates” comes in a box of 27 unbound chapters (plus the novelist Jonathan Coe’s invaluable introduction). The “First” and “Last” chapters are designated as such. The intervening 25, ranging from 12 pages to a single paragraph, are to be read in any order we choose. Far from some modernist stunt, the form of the book dovetails beautifully with Johnson’s subject — the accidental yet persistent nature of memory.' (New York Times)
Actually, come to think of it, I might not be joking...

If you're tempted by a weekend 'Novelists' Bootcamp', I hope to be offering one again this autumn. Keep an eye on this programme page.


  1. Hello dear midwife! It's how I always see it. Glad to see that you're a writer in residence and that you're still writing for Mslexia. I gave up on it when your original column ended. I'm tempted to subscribe again.
    I was also reassured by the Guardian review of Jon McGregor's latest. It's why my novel feels so chaotic at the moment and a surprise to find that I was writing in blocks which will be interwoven later. I didn't intend it to be so, but it seems to work rather well. It'll be fun to start the second draft. Like you, I can't always see wood for trees! I also feel a need to go back to Storymaking and remind myself of what I wrote about theme, story and plot again. Theme is the hardest, I find, as there always seems to be more than one. I suppose, like characters, there has to be a main theme.
    All this is very useful for me at the moment.
    With love and thanks, Miri.

  2. Hello dear Miri - and thank you as always for kindness and support.

    I think MsLexia's really strong at the moment, especially its online side for groups and feedback. (I still hate the covers though.)

    I'm signing a group off right now, and posted this as a reminder: 'if you remember that the core theme of your story and its main character’s desire/s can be summarised in one key question, and that the rest of the story attempts to answer this by thwarting those desires, you should keep on track with the plot dynamic and suspense…'

    Or if there are several characters, maybe it's useful to consider what each of them wants MOST OF ALL, and how those desires clash?




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