Tuesday, 22 April 2014

How I write....

                                                                   (comic by Grant Snider, from Incidental Comics)

How I write - a critical reflection (MA in English and Creative Writing)

“A thousand years ago we had about 30 000 [words], now English has 500 000 and the figure is rising daily. They belong to the nation, are listed in dictionaries and each one of us has a usable store or word-hord, as the Anglo-Saxons called vocabulary, of about 15 000. This is 3 per cent of the total in The Oxford English Dictionary and only half the number used by Shakespeare.” 

(Singleton, J and Sutton, G, 2000, p.41)

       Well, after this quote, I see myself ready to give up writing; writing in English, I mean. English is not my first language, therefore I believe it is impossible for me to actually have a ‘usable store of about 15 000’. However, it is odd to notice that I find it more comfortable to write in English that in my mother-tongue, Portuguese. Sometimes, I feel like I lack Portuguese vocabulary for certain types of writing more than English vocabulary. Luckily, I tend to like to keep it simple. 
     Besides being simple, I also tend to be “funny” in my writing. I don't know why but I usually have some humour in my stories somehow. I love reading girlie books (Sophie Kinsella, Mariam Keyes, Jane Costello, Cecelia Ahern, Lindsey Kelk Katie Fforde and others) and I love a good love story with hilarious bits in it. I also love crime books (Karin Slaughter being my absolute favourite, followed by Tess Gerritsen) and would love to write something similar, but I just don't think I could. Besides loving to read bloody stories and watch bloody movies, just the thought of writing something like that and having people think I'm a morbid, depressed person, puts me off it. (Well, it did. Until I came up with Twinings); or perhaps, it's just the fear of lacking vocabulary, as I mentioned in the second paragraph of this essay. 
      Short story writing has never been my favourite; actually, I was never very keen on reading short stories. During the short stories workshops I learned what short stories are about and even learned to appreciate some of them and some of the writers chosen for the course reader. More than that: I learned to have fun writing short stories, and as the workshops progressed, in some weeks I eagerly read the course reader and my classmates’ stories, while in some others I read stories that I just could not understand and asked myself ‘what’s the point in reading a story if you don’t know what happens in the end?’
      I really enjoy the way I am gradually discovering writing techniques I use to create my texts. I have always considered myself an 'intuitive, impulsive' writer. Obviously, I had no idea what happened 'backstage'. Based on the course reader I started to shape my stories, shyly at first, but trying to use some of the ‘techniques’ mentioned in the readings and present in the short stories I was reading. For example, for my first short story of this module’s blog, “Deaf, mute, blind”, I started writing it hoping it one day could become a novel. Apparently, I used one of the ideas mentioned in Burroway’s Writing Fiction (2011) about revenge: “An injustice has been done, and you are powerless to do anything about it. But you’re not really, because you’re a writer. ... Cast the outcome to suit yourself. Punish whomever you choose.” (p.12). Another author who mentions this is Jane Wenham-Jones (2007), who says: “This can be therapeutic too and great fun. ‘Don’t get mad – get your pen out’.” (.p.101) 
     Another characteristic present in my writing is experience. I usually write about things I know and things that happen to me and around me. Although Burroway says we have to be careful when using autobiography: “Probably all good fiction is ‘autobiographical’ in some way, but the awful or hilarious or tragic thing you went through may offer as many problems as possibilities when you start to turn it into fiction.” (p.8), I feel that it works for me most of the time. Also, Singleton (2000) in the chapter “The Short Story” says that 

 “Some writers think all prose, including autobiography, is fiction. Writing about self is really aliobiography they say – stories invented to explain (away?), rationalise, excuse, justify and disguise the truth. ... In writing about the self our unconscious censoring and the deficiencies of memory mean we have to fictionalise to some degree anyway, if only to make sense of a mass of confusing and fragmentary recollections. We invent dialogue for ourselves, rearrange chronology, try metaphor and assonance and rhythms to heighten emotion and dramatise, telescope events, eliminate extraneous detail, focus on key moments, images, ad infinitum. The whole tale is a careful crafting deploying a wide range of narrative tactics and effects.” (p. 100) 

      Writing “Twinings” was like watching a movie with me on it. Apart from the suicide note, I was the one scribbling in my notebook, sitting on the edge of my side of the bed, looking out of the window. I was having a bad day. Actually, I had had a very bad week.
      However, reading March-Russell's chapter on 'Minimalism/Dirty Realism/Hyperrealism', I can totally relate to Carver when he says that 'the best art has its reference point in real life.' (Carver 1990:17). “In tracing with the utmost fidelity ... characters' lives and feelings,” I usually write almost selfishly about my characters' lives and feelings, as if “to present ... reality as the only reality.” (p. 240). As I mentioned in my Researching Humanities essay, it feels like I write about what is bothering, annoying me, making me different to the 'rest of the world' in order to feel better. And in this I can relate once again with Carver's realism idea of 'literature of lowered expectations, in which transcendence is viewed as an impossible ideal' (p.240). I can write about it as much as I want to, but things will never change. Still, I have the feeling that I'm being heard and that it is more common than I can imagine feeling this way. 
      Writing 'Ex-Mrs Prince Charming' wasn't so different. I hear things, stories people tell, stories of people I know and this is an example of one of these situations. As Singleton says about recycling: “Reworking and recycling well-worn tales and narrative motifs is part of the writing process. Writing is a matter of rewriting. Try adapting a popular tale for our times...” (p. 125) ‘Ex-Mrs Prince Charming’ is a recycling of ‘Cinderella’. After writing this piece, and reading Burroway's chapter on 'Characterization' (Burroway 2011), I decided to refer back to the text and go through the punctuation marks, quotation marks, italics, etc. On her section on 'Format and Style' (p.87) I learned about the 'invisibility' of punctuation and dialogue tags such as said, replied, thought, etc and how it can make the dialogue/text 'cleaner' of unnecessary words and how to place them in the correct place to create the effect I want on the reader. 
      One particular thing I thought I hadn't managed so well was to do my dialogues. In 'Ex-Mrs Prince Charming' I struggled with whether to add more dialogue to it or not. Reading Burroway’s 'Economy in Dialogue' (p.75) I came across the 'tentative rule': “There is a tentative rule that pertains to all fiction dialogue. It must do more than one thing at a time or it is too inert for the purpose of fiction. This may sound harsh, but I consider it an essential discipline.” I'm not sure where my dialogues convey more than one thing at a time, so I tend to keep them short and not use many of them in my pieces. I guess, in the end, I'm more of a story teller. However, reading back my entries in the public blog of this module, my dialogues were quite good in “A little chat with God”, for example: 

 “He was embarrassed, 'Yes, I have, but I never thought I would join you so soon.' 
God giggled. 'Soon? Henry, you are a funny man. Always making people laugh.' 
'Well, so I want to keep on making people laugh. I don't want to go!' he pouted. 
'You don't want to go? Henry, don't be such a baby. You have no choice. This is it. You've done all you had to do. Now it's time. I'll give you 2 months.' 
Henry didn't know what to say. He was to mad at God. 
'Ah, and son, don't forget to pray as you always do. I will always be around.' 
And then, silence.” 

     Nevertheless, according to what a short story should be, and according to Carver’s minimalism, this story was far from being an “ideal short story”, with too much information “given” to the reader: 

 “He had brought up three successful children: Jen was a paediatrician, Luke was an architect and Alyson was the one who took care of his office now. He had lived with the same woman for wonderful fifty-nine years; Helen, his best friend, his lover, his constant partner in life. She'd been his first girlfriend and he couldn't be more proud of it.” 

 I must admit that no matter how hard I tried to change this aspect of this specific short story and “hide” the information or reveal it in another way, I could not think of a good way to do it and still keep the main characteristic I wanted Henry to have: successful and proud of his family and achievements. Reading the “Short Story” chapter in Harper (2008) about the plot in a short story, what he says made me think that my short story did not precisely follow the five-element plot. He says: “Short stories often begin in medias res, or in the middle of things. We begin with the rising action or with the conflict.” (p.10). The conflict in this story is that Henry has got cancer and only two months left to live. Harper also says that “Background information is usually kept to a minimum and, when necessary, it is delivered in flashbacks.” (p.10). Bearing in mind that Henry has three children and has been married to the same woman for fifty-nine years, I realised that perhaps, this piece of writing was not supposed to be a short story after all; thinking about all the background information, added to the “list” of things he had to do in his last two months, I thought it would be better to leave it as a start for another possible novel, so I will deal more with it next term, during the Novel writing module. 
      As for the last piece of my portfolio, based on the use of technology in the twenty-first century, I have decided to play a little with the “new awareness of the relationship between writer and reader” mentioned in Henderson & Hancock (2010: Introduction). Writing a ‘covering letter’ in the shape of a short story, I have embraced the idea of “Yet no matter how innovative in ideas, trends, styles, or subjects, stories are how we communicate, how we share who we are.” 


Burroway, J., Stuckey-French, E. & Stuckey-French, N., (2010) Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. London: Pearson Education

Dent, C. Z. and  Zobal, S. D.  (2008) ‘Short Fiction’, in Harper, G., (ed.) Creative writing guidebook. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, pp 7 – 17.

Henderson, E. & Hancock, G. (2010) (eds.) Short Fiction & Critical Contexts. Oxford: Oxford University Press

March-Russell, P. (2009) The Short Story: An Introduction. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Pears, J. and Shields, G. (2008) Cite them right: the essential referencing guide. Newcastle upon Tyne: Pear Tree Books.

Singleton, John and Sutton, Geoff (2000) ‘Words Words Words’, in Singleton, J and Luckhurst, M. (ed.) The creative writing handbook. 2nd edn. Hampshire: Palgrave, pp 41 – 76.

Singleton, John (2000) ‘The short story’, in Singleton, J and Luckhurst, M. (ed.) The creative writing handbook. 2nd edn. Hampshire: Palgrave, pp 100 – 128..

Wehnam-Jones, J. (2007). Wannabe a writer? Bedlinog, Mid-Glamorgan: Accent Press.


  1. I think each person has writing skill unique to them and you just have to find yours and improve on it.

  2. Thank you for this interesting and informative post :) (from the Ultimate Blog Challenge)