Review of Your Creative Writing Masterclass and more

Review of Your Creative Writing Masterclass

I love books that you can dip into, and I am always interested in what writers have to say about their craft. Jurgen Wolff’s Your Creative Writing Masterclass has proved to be highly rewarding on both counts.

The book is organised into 6 sections, each of which contains several chapters. The sections are Finding Inspiration, Characters Come To Life, Shaping the Story, Finding Your Style, The Process, and The Writing Life.

As someone who writes mainly non-fiction, I was unsure whether parts of the book what be relevant to my needs. In a sense, they aren’t, since I’m not concerned with things like developing characters. However, even those chapters can be useful for the non-fiction writer.

There's plenty of useful advice in these pages

For example, if you are writing a profile of someone, you might consider taking Kurt Vonnegut’s advice to his creative writing classes students:

“… to make their characters want something right away – even if it’s only a glass of water. Characters paralyzed by the meaningless of modern life still have to drink water from time to time.”

In a more general sense, I find that reading what the great writers have to say on all aspects of writing quite interesting. I am convinced that my writing will improve by reading their advice, perhaps by some process of osmosis, which the OED defines as:

“A process resembling osmosis, esp. the gradual and often unconscious assimilation or transfer of ideas, knowledge, influences, etc.”

Perhaps more directly useful are the chapters dealing with writer’s block, criticism and money.

As well as quotes aplenty, the book also contains a section at the end of each chapter called “From advice to action!”, in which the author suggests a few practical exercises or things to think about.

I’m extremely impressed at how much research has gone into the writing of this book. It features the advice of over 150 writers, both modern and not so modern.

An index of authors would have been useful, but there is a list of authors featured in each chapter.

I think that buying this book would be money well spent. If you’re a beginning writer you will be able to benefit from the wisdom of those who have trodden the path before you. If you are a seasoned writer, it may help you gain a different perspective, or perhaps remind you of a way of looking at an issue (eg bad reviews) that you might not have considered.


Why you need a proofreader

I think this notice about parking illustrates why it’s not a good idea to rely solely on yourself when it comes to proofreading and editing. The notice contains two errors that could, and should, have been avoided.

Can you spot what they are?

Here's proof positive that proofreading is a good idea!

The first one is that it says “No return in 3 hours”. Presumably, then, it would be alright for you to return in 2.5 hours, or in 10 minutes, or indeed in any time as long as it wasn’t exactly 3 hours.

The correct word to use is “within” rather than “in”. It’s pretty obvious what the writer meant, but I wonder if, in a court of law, someone who returned before the 3 hour period was up could successfully argue that he or she had followed the instructions to the letter?!

Perhaps more importantly, although this sort of article can come across as pedantry, I do believe we should do our best to use the correct words if we are to avoid reducing the effectiveness of the English language in the long run.

The second error is “disable bay”, which should have read “disabled bay”.

Just think: all the writer needed to was to ask one or two other people to check the copy before it went to print. Still, at least I got this article out of it!


What acting taught me about public speaking

Many moons ago I took up amateur dramatics for a while. That may seem a bit odd for someone who likes to keep himself to himself, but someone invited me to see a play he was in, and I thought it looked like fun.

I have to say that the thought of going on stage was a terrifying experience. Note that I said the thought of it, not the experience itself. I’ll try to explain.

Speaker with a lot of microphones, by

It was alright on the night

Before walking on to the stage, actors have to wait for their cue. I used to wait in the wings about 20 minutes before my cue. I was frightened that either I would miss it, or that the actors on stage would somehow skip a page or two of the script (it has been known), in which case I would have to come on earlier than I’d anticipated.  And there was always the possibility that an actor on stage would fluff his lines, so my cue wouldn’t be recognisable unless I had been closely following the script.

So there I’d be, in the wings, poring over the script, which I’d have to hold with both hands because they were shaking so much.

Then my cue would come, I’d walk on to the stage and …

Amazing! Something would take over. I’d feel a calmness, serenity even. I’d play the part really well, and have the audience wrapped around my little finger.

Then I’d walk off, and start shaking again, this time from the adrenalin.

The reasons why

So how could that happen? I put it down to the following:


You have to learn your part by heart. But you must also learn the parts of other actors too, so you can get them out of a hole if necessary. You also have to know about your character and the play inside out, so that if you do forget your lines you can ad lib convincingly.

I think the same applies to giving a talk. I don’t learn my ‘speech’ by heart, because I think that would create a stultifying effect. But I do an awful lot of research, reading around the subject, thinking about it, and going over my talk again and again in my mind before the big day arrives.

It’s not about you

I think another important thing about acting is that nobody cares about you. Your job is to be true to the character, and respect the playwright, and to give the audience a good time. They have paid good money to see the play: you owe it to them to make sure they go away happy.

Is it not the same when you give a talk? The conference delegates or audience at a reading event, say, have come to hear something that you know and they don’t. If you think about the event from their point of view, it helps to stop you obsessing about yourself.

Once you’ve prepared your talk as well as you can, and decided it’s not all about you anyway, you can relax. In my experience, an experience, although the thought of giving the talk is terrifying, the deed itself can actually be enjoyable!

And as for those nerves: in my opinion, the adrenalin is your friend. The nervousness makes you give of your best. Those speakers who are nonchalalant tend, in my experience, to give lacklustre talks, memorable to nobody.


The joy of comics

“There’s Terry, always with his head in a book or a comic.” My mother’s gentle admonishment was a constant feature of our household. But it wasn’t an admonishment against reading, which my parents actively encouraged (books were revered in our home because they were books, almost regardless of the content). Rather, it was a cry of frustration over the fact that once I was engrossed in a book or a comic, anything she said to me literally fell on deaf ears.

Comics get everywhere these days! Photo by Gwyneth Anne Bronwynne Jones

Comics were a staple of my reading diet. I was constantly buying Superman and Batman comics, usually second-hand, then going back to exchange them for others (the comics shops I frequented had a half-price exchange scheme).

Another favourite was Classics Illustrated, which I was pleased to see revived last year. I read, or at least was introduced to, many classics of English literature through the medium of Classics Illustrated.

The thing is, my love of comics has never abated. Yes, I love the rather more acceptable “graphic novel”, but I still enjoy comics when I have the time to read them!

So, I was very pleased that the British Library saw fit to run an exhibition about this art/literature form. Sadly, “Comics Unmasked: Art and Anarchy in the UK” is now finished, although the book is still available.

Are comics a “legitimate” kind of reading? I think so. Modern comics have borrowed from the world of film, but even before that became more prevalent, or obvious, there was a serious discipline behind the interplay of the words and the art.

Are graphic novels a form of grown-up comic? I prefer to think of comics and graphic novels as being part of the same continuum. It’s just as valid, in my opinion, to view the comic as the graphic novel’s younger brother!

What do you think?


Should you speak for free?

In the article 3 reasons that non-fiction authors should speak, I suggested why public speaking can be important to an author. But the question arises: should that be at any price?

My natural inclination, my default position if you will, is that if you’re good enough to be asked to give a talk, do a presentation or run a workshop, then you deserve to be paid for it. As my wife so succinctly put it to me: “Nothing doesn’t buy anything.”.

2012 Green Heart Schools public speaking competition, by risbane City Council, situations, like people, are different from one another. At the end of the day, if you are asked to give a talk without payment, your decision of whether or not to accept is one that involves weighing up the (perceived) costs and benefits. Here are the considerations you might wish to take into account.

4 reasons to decline the invitation

First, it comes down to a very basic fact of economic life. As long as your supermarket asks you to pay for your food, your landlord for the rent, and all the other providers of goods and services you benefit from think it appropriate to charge you for the privilege, you need money. I’d never have to audacity to ask any of the suppliers mentioned to let me have their stuff free of charge, so I always think it’s pretty audacious when organisations ask me.

I’ll slightly soften that position in a moment, but let’s ask a simple question: when people ask you to give a talk, what is it that they are wanting? It’s not merely 45 minutes of your time. It’s all your years of expertise, research and insights. Why should you not be paid? To borrow from a TV advertisement: you’re worth it.

Second, audacity is raised to another level when the organisation asking you to speak for nothing is probably going to make a very healthy profit. I was asked by one organisation if I would give a talk at one of their conferences. When I asked them what fee they were offering, I was told that they didn’t pay speakers. I looked at the prices they charged for delegates. Even allowing for room hire and catering fees, the profit I estimated made my eyes water. 

Third, I do wonrry about the fact that some people judge quality by price. If you are seen to be prepared to work for nothing for an organisation that should be able to afford to pay you, what does that look like?

Fourth, there is the opportunity cost involved. Everything has such a cost, which is defined by economists as the next best alternative foregone. In this situation it is the money you will not be earning while preparing the talk, and then attending the event. Now, clearly, the size of this cost is subjective. If you have, as Mae West put it, nothing to do and plenty of time to do it in, the opportunity cost is zero, at least in monetary terms. On the other hand, if you would have to turn down some lucrative work in order to do the talk, the opportunity cost would be much higher in monetary terms.

There are non-monetary costs too, of course. For example, an overnight stay would mean being away from the family; a talk on a Saturday would mean, in effect, halving your weekend. 

7 reasons to accept the invitation

You’d think those four reasons to not speak for nothing would be pretty conclusive. However, there are circumstances in which you might consider doing so.

First, the conference might be a good way of coming to the attention of a large number of people who possibly might not have come across you before. Some of them may buy your books as a result. As an example, you would probably not be paid to speak at the London Book Fair, but think of the opportunity it affords: a talk attended by 100 or more people, your name and details on the seminar programme. It would be most surprising if the exposure did not lead to more sales, more followers and, crucially, more offers of paid speaking work.

Second, and tangentially related to the first point, there is the potential kudos involved. It all depends on the status of the event, who else will be speaking and who might be attending. Bear in mind that terms like “status” and so on are all relative. The President of the United States may be there to hear your talk, but if you are talking about flower arranging he is unlikely to be that interested or influential. On the other hand, a publisher in the audience might be looking for a flower-arranging expert for a new publishing project she has in mind.

Third, being at a conference usually provides good networking opportunities.

Fourth, if the other talks and workshops going on at the conference look good, it could be worth your while accepting the invitation to speak, especially if the conference is expensive and there are no media passes available. I don’t much like the idea of being paid in kind as it were, but it’s something to consider if that’s all there is.

Fifth, it’s an opportunity to promote yourself and your work, especially if you are able to set up a table with your books for sale.

Sixth, it provides an excuse to do some research or organising you’ve been meaning to do anyway. What do I mean by this? Well, let’s suppose you’ve been meaning to look into some new web-based tools for book marketing, but because of paid work commitments you have never been able to justify the time required to do the research on it. Then someone asks you if you could give a talk entitled “Internet tools for book marketing”. Why not use that as an excuse to do the research, then package up your slides into a free PDF available from your website, or when people sign up to your newsletter? Or, even sell it?

Seventh, and here is where I modify my earlier stance somewhat. If the organisation is a (true) non-profit or my talk will do some good in certain quarters, I’d consider it. For instance, I was asked if I would give a talk to a group of people starting a business for the first time. The group doesn’t have any money, and giving the talk would help out someone I know. Plus, it will probably be a relaxing and interesting way to spend an afternoon, especially as it will enable me to find out first hand what their main concerns are.

Well, that is my take on the matter. I think the bottom line is that whatever you do, you have to feel good about your decision. 









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