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Emma Darwin
I write novels and short fiction and I live in South East London.
Recent Activity
One of the very first bits of clear writerly advice I ever came across was the short-story writer's dictum of "Start as near the end as possible". Later, I encountered the thriller-writer's "Get in late and get out early", which is a double-ended version of the same idea. Certainly it's rare for me to see a beginner's novel that starts "too late" in the story, whereas perhaps the majority either simply should start at what's currently chapter three, or the writer's realised that, and tacked a zingy prologue onto the beginning, in the (entirely folorn) hope that it will compensate... Continue reading
Posted yesterday at This Itch of Writing
At an event recently, the poet Rowan Williams was reading some of his favourite poems by other poets, and he was asked what he looks for - hopes for - when he comes to a poem for the first time. For someone who's so clever and so erudite (not the same thing) his answer was wonderfully simple: "I hope to go into a poem sober, and come out a little bit drunk." And I know exactly what he means. I'm not a poet, and I don't read poetry in an organised, professional way. But there are always one or two... Continue reading
Posted Oct 13, 2014 at This Itch of Writing
It seems to be Historical Fiction Autumn. The Historical Novel Society's Awards have had a good deal to do with that; I was one of the judges for their 2014 Short Story Award, and our comments on Anne Aylor's wonderful winning story, "The House of Wild Beasts", and on the two runners-up, are now up on the site. The HNS's website is also stuffed with great blogs and articles about everything to do with historical fiction. Antonia Hodgson, whose debut novel The Devil in the Marshalsea is very high indeed on my TBR pile since I heard her speak and... Continue reading
Posted Oct 8, 2014 at This Itch of Writing
You're welcome, Rita. Good luck for the decision!
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Good to know, Mary!
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Thanks for sharing, Carol and glad its useful. Although I hope they take away the idea that they should be thinking about what IS working in a book, as much as what isn't.
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Sex is always a seller, as I know from the blog (although Passive Voice does even better than sex, in the blog's experience. Writers, honestly!). Most people's feelings about sex are more basic than their waking hours would like to admit - and I think that it's crucial that women are by a sizeable margin the biggest buyers of fiction, and Fifty Shades found the intersection between sex and fiction in a way that more specifically-pitched erotica hasn't succeeded in doing. But on the basis of the two pages I read, I think it delivered what it promised perfectly adequately. If I'd had that writing from a student I'd have known that the student had it in them to become a decent writer. What's wrong with the prose is rookie stuff, not hard to fix. Don't know about the plot because I didn't read enough, but as long as it delivered enough of what readers want, a dodgy plot doesn't matter much. But what it takes to make a successful book into a phenomenon was: a) ebooks: Fifty Shades came along at exactly the point when enough people - women - had e-readers, and of course that means you can buy the book without a soul knowing. and b) the fact that there's some kind of tipping point where word-of-mouth and the media mean that a book becomes a news story in itself: (Harry Potter another example, somewhere round Book Four). And with 50 shades, the fact that it's about women wanting/reading/enjoying/buying sex is going to make it a juicier news story than if it was about cake or cars. The story about an equivalent book for men would be grubby or at least un-surprising: we "know" that men would read such a thing. But the culture persists in feeling that a direct, explicit interest in erotica is odd in women, and discussing it is titillating. People who read perhaps one novel a year start to read it. But, of course, there's absolutely NO point in trying to use wild outliers like Fifty Shades to make any decisions about how to shape your writing life. It's like deciding how to build your house and plant your garden in Surrey, in order to weather the next hurricane, and ignoring the ordinary, daily pattern of wind and rain.
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Yes, exactly. I have a theory that in a genre you enjoy, most readers will happily read indifferent examples (see me and your average green Penguin crime novel), because they still press the right buttons well enough... Which is a very good guide, say, to what any crime novel needs to be doing.
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I think that's exactly right: as readers we're entitled to think, and say, whatever we like about a book (although Updike's rules still apply, I reckon.) But that's yet another way in which reading-as-a-writer is different from reading-as-a-reader...
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Well there's no law that says one must engage hugely with every bad book. But a spot of humility isn't just ethically admirable, it's also good common sense, I reckon.
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You're welcome, Sally. I think it's best avoided for the sake of one's own soul, but also because it's not actually going to help the writing...
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You're welcome, Vanessa - it's interesting how the same posts go on coming up time and again. I assume you know the ToolKit section?: http://emmadarwin.typepad.com/thisitchofwriting/resources.html But, TBH, I've forgotten quite a lot of what's on here - there are something like 600 posts...
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Hi Carlie - lovely to see you here! I haven't done colons and semi-colons yet - meanwhile here's a good site for the basics of how they and various other things work: http://www.bristol.ac.uk/arts/exercises/grammar/grammar_tutorial/ Although obviously the business of using punctuation expressively is a step further on.
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Yes, absolutely - although you'll always be better at fulfilling those demands really well if you consciously expand your toolkit, I think.
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It certainly can feel like that, I agree - although obviously it depends on context. But yes, a string of: "I put the kettle on. It boils. I make tea. A monster enters and it's green. I pick up my sword..." Just sounds like a five year old!
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It may give teachers a pleasurable sense of superiority to start by assuming that our students are ignorant, lazy or stupid, but as a teacher I get a whole lot further, faster, with helping a student if I start from the assumption that they have reasons for working as they do. The outcome may be unsuccessful in many ways, but that doesn't mean the reasons weren't good ones. And for a teacher, those good reasons are the place to start. But lot of the world enjoys being outraged, scornful, cynical, disapproving, or cleverly pessimistic. Do you, when you pick up... Continue reading
Posted Sep 29, 2014 at This Itch of Writing
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... and some others which might be useful. As always, Writers' Workshop's Festival of Writing at York was a brilliant, bewildering long weekend, stuffed with workshops, talks, keynote speeches, book signings, and oceans of talking and drinking and eating and writing. As well as the mini-course on Self-Editing Your Novel that Debi Alper and I gave on Friday afternoon, I taught workshops on prose - Plain & Perfect, Rich & Rare - and on The Heart of Storytelling: three- and five-act structure. I sat on an industry panel about Historical Fiction, and I did lots of one-to-one Book Doctor sessions,... Continue reading
Posted Sep 15, 2014 at This Itch of Writing
Specificity is ALWAYS the answer, I think. Another reason for not using the phrase passive writing: it doesn't actually give the writer any clues to what to do about it.
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I don't think I've ever told a student their writing is boring to their face, but ...
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The trouble is that people do turn warnings into rules, when people who'd like to sound like gurus - even things as bonkers as saying that the most common and basic verb in the language is for some reason not "allowed". Which is slightly understandable - even if wrong - when people say "show don't tell", because Showing is usually more vivid and that's usually what we want. What's really wrong-headed about warning baby writers against using "to be" is that the verb being there isn't the problem: it's the canary in the mine for other problems. It doesn't actually teach the writer about the nature of the problem. I suppose what's obvious to anyone who has a natural talent for good writing isn't obvious at all to people who still feel at sea among the options (or really are born with a tin ear for how language works) and so they reach for a rule. As for "passive writing", I don't think it's even a terribly good label, as well having the confusion with the grammatical meaning of passive. I agree with Leila - it's very non-specific, so the best way to replace it would be to use a word which gets more exactly at the specific problem in that case. Some that occur to me, depending on the problem: flat, dull, un-vivid, un-energetic, distanced, stodgy, padded, limp ...
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To be fair, I think when e.g. Orwell says it, he's starting from an "Of course I only mean this some of the time, for writers who don't know any better and need telling" ... and then it gets taken for gospel, instead of merely a pointer being made in a particular context, and not really about fiction at all.
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See you there!
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It's just been London's turn for the Historical Novel Society Conference, and as part of a packed programme, Suzannah Dunn and I were asked to give a workshop on "Figures of Speech: Recreating Past Voices". That too, was packed: it's just as well no one else turned up or we'd have had people sitting on the floor! As is the way, I found myself referring quite often to posts on the blog, so here's a roundup of the ones I remember, and any others which seem relevant. Do say in the comments if I've missed any, or there are any... Continue reading
Posted Sep 9, 2014 at This Itch of Writing
You're welcome, Roy. (Hope it's okay that I redacted your email address, which was showing as your username - which does tend to get found by the spammers...)
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Oh, blurgh! to rejections. The un-fun part of the business. But The Crocodile Hotle that sounds really interesting - best of luck with it!
Toggle Commented Sep 3, 2014 on Why Do I Write? at This Itch of Writing
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