Tag Archives: workshops

An Arty Business

The highlight of my last week – besides rediscovering that the sun can be hot – was a writing workshop in the Deux-Sèvres with lovely Michèle Roberts. She’s half French and half English, which makes her particularly interesting to us Francophiles. As well as her understanding of cultural differences, particularly in literature, she is warm, generous and encouraging. We love her! Many thanks to Gordon and Jocelyn Simms for organising the day.

English literary events in my part of France are rare, so it was intriguing to meet the participating writers. What a friendly bunch they were. I could have chatted to them all day. But the call of the pen meant we had to sit down and actually write. Some rebels carried on conversations by passing notes, though I’m not sure this counted as a workshop activity.

Luckily, our pens didn’t accompany us to lunch, which meant I was able to have a long chat with successful self-published author Alison Morton. Her business sense impressed me. And it got me thinking…


Back with French friends that evening, I met my opponent-in-war (see my blog post The Novel War). And made the mistake of telling him about my inspiring day.

“Hmm,” he said. “Trust you Brits to turn art into business.”

And so began a delightful evening – in a rather less supportive atmosphere than Michèle’s workshop.

We drew our swords: should writing be treated as a business and marketed to readers? Or should it remain an art form and sleep in a notebook?

He claimed it is enough to create art; that art is about expressing yourself. He said that if you create to sell, your creations are no longer sincere. Artists create for themselves. They don’t care whether they sell their work or not.

I thought about the joy of writing family memoirs; the comfort of a journal; the pleasure of finding exactly the right image to convey an emotion; the satisfaction in perfecting a short story or a poem, knowing that it will never be published. I thought about unpaid bloggers. And finally I thought about the dreaded synopses, covering letters, blurbs and social media.

Many glasses of rosé later, we were no closer to a compromise.


The question of whether to write for ourselves or to write for a market is one that haunts me. Some experts advise writing with a particular market in mind. Others tell you to write whatever comes naturally.

When my moody teenagers were yelling babes*, I took part-time parental leave (thank you France) so that I could change their nappies myself every afternoon. Oh yes: and so I could write during their siestas. I wanted to write myself a proper novel without making all the mistakes I’d made in novel Zero. I had no thought of a market. I knew I could write a novel because I’d already done it. But novel Zero was tightly plotted and planned and hadn’t left enough room for creativity. So I wanted to write a novel organically; to begin with a character and let the story grow.

“Don’t worry,” I told my partner. “I just need to get this writing thing out of my system. Then I’ll go back to full time project management, the kids can go to school and we’ll get the car mended.”

Between drafts of my organic novel ‘Tree Magic’ (to be published in January 2017 by Impress Books), I started to write commissioned feature articles. This meant I had no time for my novel. But it didn’t matter: feature writing was so fulfilling. I met people, my work was read (even if nobody actually looked at my name) and I was being paid.

Then, one day, a French friend said, “This magazine writing is all very well. But don’t forget about what you really want to write.” I interpreted this as: ‘don’t let business stand in the way of art’.

A few months later I went back to my fiction. The dishwasher broke down and didn’t get mended.


Although Michèle Roberts talked about the differences between the French and British approaches to literature, we didn’t have time to distil our thoughts down to Art versus Business. But I do feel that, for many French people, art is superior to business: whereas – dare I say it – the Anglo-Saxon culture celebrates business achievements.

I concluded my rosé-tinted evening with the thought that we need Art for personal expression and Business to buy time for that personal expression. Who can blame writers for trying to do both at the same time?



*I actually love my children to bits! They’re never moody and they never yelled. Well, not much.

The Novel War

Writing group workshops bring out a mixture of feelings in me. I’m overjoyed to be able to discuss writing with other writers. But then there are the exercises. As soon as the countdown begins, my mind goes blank. All I can concentrate on is the sound of other writers’ pens racing across the paper; diarrhoea to my constipation.

Not that anyone in my group writes shit, of course. Far from it. By the end of the exercise I have managed a few strangled sentences of clumsy words. They completely elude the idea I have finally decided to write about in the last minute of the exercise. Then comes the reading out of our words. I try to console myself with the thought that those who have written fast and copiously can’t have had time to construct a work of beauty. Wrong. I am astounded by the vocabulary and the images they manage to convey in ten galloping minutes.

In a recent homework exercise we had to write a description of an object. Everything I wrote sounded banal. I complained about my lack of skill to a friend.


I’m at war with this particular friend. He’s a fan of la bande dessinée, or comic books, better translated as graphic novels.

Our war pits Picture Novels against the far superior Word Novels (guess which side I fight for).

It’s a cloak and dagger war, and because my friend wasn’t wearing a cloak, his lunge took me by surprise.

“What’s the point of writing a description of an object?” he asked. “That’s what pictures are for. And they’re much more efficient than words.”

He gloated over his fortuitous thrust. While I hopped from one foot to the other, searching for a weakness in his argument, he attacked again.

“Words are only any use for telling stories, not for describing things visually. A good picture will bring an immediate emotive response. Words are a barrier to communicating a feeling. Art – and music and dance – are purer than literature because there’s no need to pass through the medium of words. Even the most apt words only dilute emotion. Our vocabulary is limited compared to the range of our feelings.”

The tip of his sword pinned me to the wall. I twisted and parried.

“It’s the way we use words that’s important,” I said. “A picture may be more immediate, but words take us further than our emotive response. They show us relationships between things that appear unrelated. When you write, you make links between ideas that are otherwise separate. That’s why clusters, or word association diagrams, are useful.”

His sword spun across the floor.

“In writing, your aim isn’t to describe a scene or object,” I reprised. “It’s to infuse it with meaning that takes you beyond what you can see, hear, feel and smell. That’s why imagery is more powerful than adjectives.”

I didn’t listen to his counter attack. I suddenly understood why I couldn’t produce a satisfactory description of my object. The description was only a start point. It would help me to look beyond the object’s visual appearance. The object was simply a portkey to a hidden subtext.

It takes much longer to find meaning in objects than to describe them. Meaning doesn’t always occur on demand – especially not in the presence of a ticking stopwatch. The writing exercise is a way of ‘writing in’ to find a meaning associated with the theme of the exercise. The placing of words on paper allows our subconscious to guide us to the memories or ideas lurking in the depths of our minds.

I’ve been doing those writing exercises all wrong. It’s time to play around and put things right. Forget the meaning to start with: just write about the object. A meaning will gradually make itself clear. Only then can you start to build your piece of art.