I'm back from a lovely holiday in the New Forest and here is the third and final part of my write-up of TLC’s Writers’ Day 2019.
In part one, I talked about how I learned some top advice for editing your novel, three key questions to ask potential literary agents and five amazing tips on book marketing.
In part two, I talked about the seven things I learned about pitching a novel.
In this part, I’m going to talk about two strategies for writing about taboo subjects, three things that I find hard to write about (and why), the two essential elements of a short story and what I learned from talking to other attendees during the breaks.
The final talk of the day was given by Leone Ross and she spoke about writing taboo. She asked us to really think about the subjects that we find uncomfortable to write about and asked us to get under the skin of why that could be. The message that I got was that uncomfortable subjects shouldn’t necessarily be avoided. Avoiding certain subjects just because of fear is not helpful and it can be self-indulgent. She told us that by keeping some distance between ourselves and our stories will help us feel more comfortable with writing about subjects that we feel are taboo. In other words, "It's the tale, not he who tells it."
Leone then gave us two strategies for overcoming the fear that we may feel.
The first strategy was to focus on the authenticity of what we’re trying to say. Writing taboo isn’t there to shock or to titillate - it’s about specificity and detail. Leone told us not to police our own language, but to look deeply into the details of what we are describing - the sounds, the smells and the particularity of movement. Never say "fruit," instead say "freshly-washed green apples." She asked us to always be on the lookout for behaviours that typify emotions and then use them in our writing. Be as authentic as possible. Don’t shy away from what may be brutal or sexual or violent, but when writing about it try to be honest. When the writing is done, it’s that honesty that will shine through.
Leone had us do an exercise in which we all wrote down some topics that we were uncomfortable writing about. Then she had us think about why we were uncomfortable writing about it.
The three things I wrote down on the day were:
1. Islam (and other non-christian religions)
2. Non-hetero sexualities
3. Race and racism
The reasons for my discomfort 1 and 2 are the same. I’m worried that people will think that I’m making judgements about a particular group of people and that those judgements come from a place of ignorance. If I write about a Muslim or gay character who fucks up (all of my characters have flaws), I worry that it would be perceived as me being prejudiced. Going back to Leone’s discussion about authenticity, I feel that if I write about things I’ve experienced and then other people take issue with it, I can come back and say that the writing is authentic because I’ve experienced it. However if I write about Islam or homosexuality (for example) I don’t have that fall back. This is issue of “writing the other” is something that I’m going to grapple with quite a bit going forward because I love reading about people who are not like me and I enjoy writing those stories too.
For 3, my discomfort comes from my worry that people will perceive me as having a drum to bang. People who know me will tell you that I’m a relaxed, laid-back person. I’m a pretty tall and broad and since I was about 12 I’ve had the “angry black guy” stereotype thrown at me in a variety of different ways. I’m worried that by explicitly writing about race and racism, people who don’t know me would dismiss my writing with an eye-rolling “Here’s a black person playing the victim again, get over it.”
After listening to Leone's talk and listing my reasons, I can see that whilst I think my reasons are understandable, none of it is to do with actual writing. It's all about the perceptions of others and therefore, it shouldn't stand in my way.
Leone’s second strategy for dealing with taboo is to focus on the craft of the writing itself. The better we get at telling stories well, the more the craft protects us against our fear of writing taboos. She then gave us some frankly brilliant advice about short story writing.
Now, I’ve stopped writing short stories in order to focus on my novel, but short-form fiction is something I’d like to return to at some point, so Leone’s advice was golden.
Leone told us that a short story needs both shape and constraint.
It’s easiest to write about a specific encounter. That encounter should have two energies coming together in a highly-changed space. For example, these energies could be depicted by two characters, or by two ideas. We should give the encounter a sense of meaning. This meaning should be clear in that it leads the characters somewhere. By the end of the story something needs to get figured out by the writer, the reader or the character.
1. Limit the number of characters. Two is good, one can be OK
2. Limit the time-frame. It can happen over hours or a day. (I smiled to myself at this one because my friend Dylan Brethour’s published story The Moon We Drown In encapsulates her protagonist’s whole life).
3. Limit the scenes and settings. This will give more space to focus on the emotional impact of the encounter.
Leone finished by telling us that we should always remember that you don’t have to hurt yourself to write great fiction. It’s not necessary to bare your whole soul on the page, so if you don’t want to do that - then that’s quite OK too.
After Leone had finished, host and organiser Aki Schilz gave us a quick “Thank-you and Goodbye” talk and the day was over - well, almost.
Another thing I really enjoyed about the day was meeting and talking to other writers. I loved hearing about other people’s projects and other writers had some very useful and practical advice too. I spoke to one person about his experience of getting his manuscript reviewed by a paid-for service. Here are three things that I took learned of from speaking to other attendee writers on the day.
The London Writers’ Awards. I’m too late for this year, but this is something that will definitely be on my radar for the 2020 round.
Inscribe Writers. Specifically for developing, BAME writers this Leeds-based group (Go Yorkshire!) has lots of interesting things for me to consider.
That’s it, I’m going to shut up now. Thank you to The Literacy Consultancy for putting on such a great day. In my feedback, I wrote that if anything, I felt the day was too short and I wanted more! I thoroughly recommend this day to other writers. If TLC run this event next year, I’m highly likely to come again.
If you want more, you can head over to TLC's website to read their write up of the day.
Bye for now