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Monday, 8 September 2014

Creative Writing: Self-Help And Suggestions...

View From The Barrow Wake by B.R.Marshall
If you want to write a best seller, self-help and sex are the subjects to get you the highest sales. Think of all the books on dieting that'll hit the shelves to coincide with our New Year Resolutions in January 2015, or the sales figures of Fifty Shades Of Grey.

Whatever your book is about, how are you going to get it written? You'll need imagination and determination, but it helps to have some encouragement along the way, too. This is where self-help and community action join forces.

I wrote here about how the Marcher Chapter of the Romantic Novelists' Association held a creative writing workshop back in the spring. We each submitted ten pages of our work in advance. Then we all made notes on everyone else's work, and presented them on the day.

I found the experience of having other writers assess my work really helpful. After all, they're keen readers, too, and that's exactly the audience I want to entertain.  After a day spent talking about nothing but the craft of writing, we all went home after that workshop with lots of inspiration.

Along with everyone else, I was encouraged to finish the work I'd showcased. You can read an extract from The Survivors' Club here. Our workshop that day was the final push I needed to finish the whole book. After a final polish, it was packed off to the publisher. Everyone else arrived at our next meeting with similar stories. Nobody wanted to be the one to confess they hadn't done anything more with their project!

The need for advice, and a spur to turn it into action, are prime reasons to join a local group. The online writing community is great, but sometimes it's good to get out from behind your screen and meet other people face-to-face. If there isn't a writing group in your area already, why not start one yourself? It's got the potential to be much more productive that a simple book club, although there's nothing to stop you combining the two. All writers are readers, and you might encourage other people to pick up their pens. That's how fan fiction began, after all. You can cheer each other up when the going is tough, and cheer each other on when it's going well. All it takes is somewhere to meet. Plenty of tea and cake always helps the creative process, but that's optional!

If you want your meetings to be productive as well as sociable you need a good chairman (or chairwoman) to keep meetings on topic, and make sure everyone gets a chance to speak. Criticism should always be constructive, and try and keep to the ratio of three stars to every black hole–that is, highlight three times more good points than you give suggestions for improvement. It keeps meetings upbeat. That way, you all go home feeling your work has been praised more than it's been criticised. It makes everyone feel more confident about tackling the suggested revisions.

Do you belong to a writers' group or book club? What's the most useful piece of information you've been given?


Friday, 5 September 2014

The Archers: This Time It's Personal...

You're In The Country Now...
My blogs on the state of BBC Radio 4's long-running serial, The Archers, have excited a lot of interest. The programme used to be a few minutes of easy listening for me each weekday evening and for a longer stretch each Sunday, but not any more. That's why I came up with a few suggestions for what may–or may not be– improvement, depending on your point of view.

You can see what some other readers had to say about my previous blogs here. No less a person than Alison Graham, columnist for The Radio Times, also weighed in with this comment on Twitter which I'm reproducing here in full:

Your suggestion that TA will be scrapped is absurd - why would R4 dump its biggest drama? And plots about dog theft? Really?

I didn't have time to craft a reply succinct enough for Twitter. However, if Ms Graham reads this post, my original aim in blogging about The Archers was to stave off any possible plans to scrap it–however unlikely–by acting in advance. I mean, look how popular and useful the BBC Gardening Message Boards were, and they were closed down!

Rather than simply moan about why I don't listen to the programme any more, I wanted to suggest ways to turn it back into the rural–based drama and entertainment I used to enjoy. Part of this enjoyment stemmed from the unique feel of The Archers. It  was different from all the urban-based soaps, on TV. To my mind it's become a clone of those other programmes and has suffered as a result. Other opinions are available, by the way. This blog is a purely personal rant.

For example, take Jill Archer. A brilliant cook, homemaker, mother and beekeeper, she was always one of my favourite characters. I'm younger than Jill's daughter Shula, yet while I need the help of a big, strong, ruggedly-handsome chap to help me with the honey harvest each year, 80-something Jill is suddenly throwing herself into a difficult calving. I may be wrong, but I don't remember her having either the time, strength or inclination to offer much more than tea and sympathy to her farmer husband Phil when she was of an age to give hands-on help

Here's my idea for a storyline for Jill.  It's relevant to contemporary country living, without alienating urban listeners.

Jill is being helped with the honey harvest by another cast member and one or other of them gets stung.  The victim goes into anaphylactic shock. The notorious lack of a good mobile signal in the countryside (rarely if ever mentioned on The Archers) could make this serious situation fatal. If that storyline's too scary, how about Jill reluctantly deciding the active side of beekeeping is too much for her?  She starts working on the theory side instead. Google the dread word "modules" and you'll find they take a lot of study. That will bring in the lack of further education provision in many rural areas, reduced library services and the truly cr*ppy Broadband speeds most of us out in the sticks have to endure. In the meantime, she can act as a mentor to the next generation of beekeepers, while they do the heavy/awkward work for her. All that would be completely in character for Jill, IMHO.  These ideas are too late for this year, but they'd be something to consider for the future.

A word of warning though, Scriptwriters. Whatever storyline you're working on at the moment, please, please, please don't ram it down our throats every day for a month then drop it without another mention. The huge snowball of costs incurred by the-wedding-that-never-was is a famous example of this, but there are plenty of others. I'd cite that Mr Tod and Jemima Puddleduck of Ambridge, Rob and Helen, but you've come back to that storyline recently. Great–I can't wait to see how that turns out!

I think weaving any story-strand in and out for weeks and months is better than dropping in huge lumps at one time, like clay onto a wheel.

 What's your opinion?