For this month’s #WriteCBC Twitter competition, we’re delighted to feature a writing tip and writing task from Curtis Brown’s Alice Lutyens. Alice is the literary agent with more CBC former-students on her client list than any other at this time – including Jane Harper, Kate Hamer, Catherine Bennetto and the soon-to-be-published Rachel Marks – as well as a couple more alumni who are currently still working on their novels to get them ready for Alice to send out to publishers. You can read more about Alice and what sorts of novels she’s currently looking for in this blog
If this is your first #WriteCBC, and you’re not sure how it works, here’s a blog with information about how to join in and the prizes you can win. Oh, and when you post your task up on Twitter, do make sure you use the hashtag #WriteCBC and tag us @CBCreative – otherwise we might not see it …
So to business … Here’s Alice’s writing tip:
I fall in love with books where the writer makes the extraordinary out of the ordinary using beautifully well-turned phrases. Carry a notebook so you can record the amazing in your everyday life & use your observations to elevate your fiction.
At CBC we spend a lot of our time talking about story and characterisation – and saying that it doesn’t matter how pretty your writing is if you don’t get these right in your novel or story. But BUT – it’s also VITALLY important to think hard about the writing itself. A banging plot might not get you far if your prose is flat and cliche-ridden – or indeed if it’s verbose and overblown. If you want to be a writer, you do need to focus on the expression of your ideas – working hard on your choice of words; your use of images, metaphors, similes (if indeed you use them). You should be looking to evolve a writing voice that is distinctly yours, and which elevates your story to a whole new level.
This is of course easier said than done. And the fear of writing badly can stop you writing at all. My tip is to write in whatever way comes naturally to you in first draft without worrying too much about style and texture – whether that means your writing is wildly overwritten or utterly featureless. Then, when you come to rewrite and edit, you can cut and calm it down or work further detail and colour into it – whichever applies. And in the end, it’s in any case a matter of taste – one reader’s purpose prose is another’s exquisite style. Aim to create the kind of prose that you like to read, make it as good as you can, and hopefully the rest will follow …
Alice has often talked to me about the occasions when she gets a “tingle” on starting to read a manuscript – this very much happened when she first picked up The Girl in the Red Coat by our former student Kate Hamer. And it was the richness of Kate’s writing – the lovely little touches when she describes the everyday – that first made Alice fall in love with the novel and decide to offer representation to Kate.
For instance, this – about walking into a therapy room:
“The room was neutral – cream walls, oatmeal carpet. Two chairs facing each other and a coffee table in between. There, the only spot of colour, tissues fluffed out into a pink rose.”
It’s deceptively simple, but what Kate does, to great effect, is to highlight one specific detail of the otherwise bland room- that box of tissues. This makes the room real to us and does so evocatively. That’s another tip for you – think about specificity when you’re trying to describe a scene. Alight on those small, telling details.
We often talk about the usefulness of carrying a notebook around with you – and really the notebook is your best friend when it comes to this business of making the extraordinary from the ordinary. Write down the striking things you see, the weird snatches of conversation overheard, the littlest things you notice, feel, experience … And then, when you are trying to bring a scene to life, turn to your notebook and you’ll find you have lots of material to draw on.
Suzannah Dunn – one of our CBC tutors, is another master at the use of specific detail to enrich a scene. She drops in a tiny detail and then draws it out further, showing how it resonates for the character in question, so that the reader gets to understand something of the character’s fears, desires or secrets:
“This morning I found a few clotted-looking veins shadowing my calves; ageing means that my insides are toughening and working their way to a thinning surface.”
(from Commencing Our Descent)
And here’s a final example, from Sarah Waters’ The Little Stranger. Our narrator remembers the house which is at the heart of this novel, and uses clever description s to hint at the narrator’s feelings about it.
“I recall most vividly the house itself, which struck me as an absolute mansion. I remember its lovely ageing details: the worn red brick, the cockled window glass, the weathered sandstone edgings. They made it look blurred and slightly uncertain – like an ice, I thought, just beginning to melt in the sun.”
This is the only one of our examples to feature a simile. I always tell students to be careful when using metaphors and similes – and that a good rule of thumb is to deploy them ONLY when they shed a new or different light on what’s being described – not just because it sounds pretty or poetic. Here, the simile hints at the transience of childhood experience – and there’s more than a hint of melancholy …
And now to Alice’s writing task:
Find a fresh and distinctive way to describe one of these everyday, mundane scenarios/experiences, choosing your words carefully to breathe new life into it: (1) waking up in the morning; (2) the walk to work; (3) entering a familiar room
Results: Once again, we have been overwhelmed with the response to #WriteCBC – the sheer amazing wealth of fictional worlds that you’ve drawn us into … But we have to pick one, and this time the winner is …
Winner: Elizabeth Price
It’s no longer his room. The shelves are bare of lego & books; no files litter the floor, no tangle of chargers & no dirty laundry. The caddisfly carapace of my son, pupated & flown. Only an empty aftershave remains, wafting notes of bergamot where I should smell sweat.
We thought this was so clever and so apt: the son’s teenage years, and indeed the bedroom which has been his world for the teenage years – as pupa – with him now evolved and flown. The mother left to face the remains, the detritus of his former life. There’s a full story here, and it’s beautifully told. We even love the note of bergmot in the end – obviously a nicer smell than sweat, but that’s not the point. Her teenage boy is gone. Great work here, and congratulations to Elizabeth, who wins a free place on one of our 6-week courses.
Our runners-up – all incredibly good too! – are: Moira Waugh, Liana Cafolla and Tracy (@inaforeignland). Course discounts to you three. And there will also be some honourable mentions, which Katie will be tweeting out over the next little while.
Brilliant day – hope you had fun, and see you on 1st November for the next #WriteCBC
For more tips on balancing your beautiful writing with a compelling plot take a look at our 6-week online courses designed specifically to help you at different stages of your novel-writing journey: Starting to Write Your Novel, Write to the End of Your Novel , Edit & Pitch Your Novel