Ask Academy with Richard T. Kelly

9 minutes read

Just before Christmas, we ran a week-long writing clinic on Twitter, where our tutors answered your writing questions every lunchtime. The conversations proved so interesting and informative, we decided to share them here.

Read on for Richard T. Kelly’s advice on writing lyrical prose, writing within a three- or five-act structure and – most challenging of all – writing during a global pandemic.

FA: Hi, Richard! Thanks for joining us. Here’s our first question: ‘Would you have any advice on how to make one’s prose more lyrical? And by lyrical I mean the kind of language that arrests, that can take a simple thing and open it up, showing how differently we all experience the world. Sometimes the text comes out that way when I’m inspired, but I’m working on a novel and can’t afford to rely on inspiration alone. Do you have any tips on how to cultivate this in the rewriting/editing phase?’

RTK: Hello! This is a lovely way to spend a rainy afternoon – thanks for sending questions and for the chance to mull over these big considerations about writing. ‘Lyrical’, I guess, is writing so beautifully, and in such a fresh way, that the reader feels they see a thing in a new light, charged by imagination, not the same old words. This quality has to come from your powers of observation. It’s a matter of style, intensely personal, it can’t be impersonated. When I started writing fiction I was haunted at times by the notion I ought to be cramming more metaphors into my sentences. But these things arise naturally or they don’t. (Lean, minimal prose can be intensely metaphorical in what it draws a reader’s eye to, cf. Hemingway etc.)

You can train your powers of observation. Try studying physical things, capturing them in words with the care a still-life artist would take. Take ten tired-out similes – cold as ice, passion like fire – and try to write five new ones for each that you’ve never seen or heard before. But sometimes these sudden illuminations just hit you in the street, and that’s why writers should always carry a little old-fashioned notebook! In editing you can always revisit a chapter – a paragraph, a passage, a scene – and try to look around it anew, revisit it in your head and think about its perspective and its details. Then, as a visual artist would, you can ‘retouch’ certain elements for the reader’s attention.

FA: That’s a great image! A really helpful way to think about it.

RTK: I hope it’s helpful to the questioner – as you can see, this is an issue I have wrestled with!

FA: Okay, another biggie for you! I’m really interested in this one too, actually: ‘How important do you think it is to have a structure in mind as you write? I keep hearing about three act structures or five and I don’t really know how to apply that to my novel idea’

RTK: Oh yes… I’d expect any writers who have sat through my Academy classes would know my thoughts on this one well before I’ve typed ’em… In my opinion, every novelist has a stance or theory on pre-planning the work. Some swear by it and are obsessive blueprint-makers; others say they loathe it and it’s inimical to the whole point/pleasure of creativity. But everyone does at least a little of it. 

Basically, I think every artist sets certain ‘rules’ for themselves, even if only to break them in ways that can be revealing. There are zillions of advisors on how many ‘acts’ a story should have etc., from Aristotle to Robert McKee, and they’re freely available to consult. But I don’t think there’s one gospel. I do think everyone needs to find their novel’s proper shape, its proper internal movements. Weirdly, my novels always seem to be arranged in seven ‘parts.’ A novel is a big undertaking, and you want some sort of vulnerable map or model – like a sculptor first makes a maquette – to better discern where you’re heading. You want a provisional shape – because the final thing must be highly shapely, and it’s better you see that sooner. Your plan might be a spreadsheet or a beat-sheet or an x/y graph or a mind-map doodle. But just take a blank page and start roughing it out.

FA: That’s so interesting that you always end up with seven! And which side of the scale do you tend to fall on – obsessive blueprinter or casual doodler?

RTK: Well, seven is, of course, a number of great magical power… I feel like I’ve probably shown my slip on this point, so to speak, but I am a heavy-duty planner who nonetheless accepts that the plan is going to change, in interesting ways…

FA: I aspire to this! Frantic whiteboard scribbler and random Post-It thought collector over here, generally.

RTK: That’s planning, though, isn’t it? Just with a more non-linear slant. Probably a more fertile way forward than mine, too. Many writers could share with their readers some extraordinary pictures of exactly how they plan – many indeed have…

FA: That’s a kind way of putting it. And ooh! I feel a new series coming on, I would love to see some of those…

RTK: I have links and jpgs, some of my classes have seen ’em.

FA: Okay, a related one: ‘I need to edit my first draft (written during NaNoWriMo and pretty rough) but don’t know where to start. I know I have some big structural changes to make but it feels so daunting – how do you start taking apart such a large piece of work?’

RTK: First, well done on massing a first draft – they’re always going to be rough, but it means you’ve got a piece of marble to start chipping at. Re my previous on planning, I won’t fall back on the old joke of ‘I wouldn’t start from here.’ No more useful to you than to the tourist lost en route to Dublin in the joke… The great thing is that you say you know you need structural changes, so you clearly have a feel for what the structure, the shape, aspires to be but hasn’t yet attained. It is daunting, like most things in writing, but it must be done! 

First, make sure you’ve let the draft sit unattended as long as you can. To edit it, you need to be able to read it from a position of remove, and you can’t do that when it’s newly finished and all you’re seeing is thousands of decisions you just made, from sentence to sentence. But when you’re ready, print it out and sit down with a pen and a legal pad, and read it from start to end. By all means mark your pages for minor corrections of style; but on the legal pad, note at intervals whatever problems you’re observing about how your story is unfolding: are things missing, are things taking too long, or do they happen too fast? etc. But I expect certain issues about the shapeliness of what you’re doing will then become very clear to you. And you can start remedying them!

FA: Brilliant, thank you! Also, I have such admiration for anyone who manages to finish NaNoWriMo – at any time, but especially this year! Which actually leads me to our last question… ‘I’ve really struggled to concentrate on writing this year – do you have any tips or exercises to help me get back in the zone? I’m worried I’ll never finish this novel!’

RTK: We’re all with you on this one. Writing-wise, it’s been a great year for the world giving us material to write about, less so for the spirits we usually need to get the thing written… Still, I feel the best tip is to write every day, or at every reasonable opportunity you can carve out for yourself – whether or not you feel up to it/enthused by it. Really it’s about taking ‘the job’ seriously – trying to make a decent fist of a working day no matter what. Norman Mailer said that’s what makes a writer a professional: “the ability to work on a bad day”, which strengthens over time. He added beautifully that “the higher reaches of the mind are not enthralled by dull work”… but still you have to do “drudgery” to reach the peaks. 

I don’t steer by daily word-counts – one day you might produce thousands of words of stuff that looks utterly no good the next morning, on another you might craft no more than a sentence or two that nonetheless feels truly ideal, and really opens a window for you onto the book. So, just sit down, engage your mind and write some sentences. If you’re in the midst of a novel and the bit you’re stuck on is weighing you down – try to jump ahead to a later bit you maybe do feel like writing. If you’re mired in something rather tragic but it’s not coming out, consider a different passage of action: it could be romantic, comedic – it might be what wants to come out of you that day, and might lead you somewhere new, just because you made a decent fist of a working day.

FA: This is very reassuring, thank you! And hopeful too – because I think being led somewhere new certainly has all kinds of appeal at the end of 2020, doesn’t it!

RTK: Absolutely. There’s been a lot of talk about ‘pandemic novels’ but that doesn’t mean it’s where people’s imaginations will be headed, or that pandemic-set novels will best express the truth of how people have been feeling this year.

Richard T. Kelly is the author of the novels, Crusaders (2008), The Possessions of Doctor Forrest (2011) and The Knives (2016). His fourth novel, The Black Eden, is forthcoming from Faber. His non-fiction publications include Alan Clarke (1998), Sean Penn: His Life and Times (2004), and Keegan & Dalglish (2017). Previously a senior editor for a number of London publishers, he has also written scripts for stage and screen, has edited two anthologies of P.G. Wodehouse, and is a contributing editor to Esquire and Critical Quarterly.

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