Next to reveal her writing secrets: – Shirley Wright


Shirley WrightAfter her guest slot on BBC Radio Bristol last Saturday (two days left to catch up here),  Shirley is fast becoming a local celebrity, but she has found time to tell us some of her writing secrets in today’s post.


What are you working on now?

Poetry, almost exclusively. I’ve become fascinated with form, and I’m enjoying exploring its restrictions and its challenges. My current obsession is with the sonnet. I suspect that’s the most well known of all the poetic forms and probably the most used, both by modern and not so modern writers. Surely everyone had to learn one of Wordsworth’s or Shakespeare’s at school? And today’s kids have examples like the fabulous “Prayer” by Carol Ann Duffy.

How does your work differ from others in the same genre?

Well, there’s a limit to how different you can actually be when you’re writing in strict form! But what I like about today’s poets is the way they push the boundaries and bend the rules in an attempt to move things on. Like a modern take on an old classic – paying homage while at the same time acknowledging that things change (and have to, or else they’ll ossify and die). Some people are very resistant to this! I was at a poetry workshop recently where I read a few of my sonnets and explained what I was trying to do and why, and met with violent opposition: a sonnet is fourteen lines, with strict metre and rhyming patterns, and that’s that. No argument. Now, Don Paterson (Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, university lecturer, published poet and author of many tomes specifically about the sonnet, and therefore someone who probably knows his onions) reckons the only thing you can definitely say nowadays about a sonnet is that it usually has fourteen lines, but often doesn’t! When I quoted this at the said workshop, there were gasps of horror.

Why do you write what you do?

I write poetry because I love words. Frankly, I’m obsessed with them. Their meanings, sound, feel, taste, ambiguities, etymology, grammatical interplay … I’m one of those geeky people who can spend all day worrying about a semi-colon or choosing between two words that basically mean exactly the same thing! I like writing in form because, in a weird way, its restrictions are  somehow liberating. When you’re searching for a particular rhyme, it makes your imagination go to places you wouldn’t otherwise have considered. It makes you more inventive.

 What is your writing process?

 I try to write every day. But it’s different from the discipline of bashing out a thousand words of prose before lunch. I can’t be that regular or that methodical. Sometimes a poem starts to take shape while I’m shopping or ironing or cooking. I scribble odd words down, then carry on with what I’m doing and wait till a bit more comes along. Eventually the poem demands attention and then I go straight to the computer. I know lots of poets still swear by pencil and paper, but seeing lines clearly on the screen, and being able to move them about so easily, helps me envisage the future poem, even before it exists. My handwriting’s illegible, anyway. But there are also days when nothing new happens and I spend my time fiddling and editing and reworking old poems, often just playing with the odd word. Poets are inveterate fiddlers. We never know when to leave a poem alone and say “It’s finished”. Because it never is. If I’m really stuck, I read someone else’s poetry and this can help a lot.

lastgreenfieldThank you Shirley. You can view The Last Green Field and Shirley’s other publications on our bookshop page.

Meanwhile – as you can guess from this picture we’re in tea-party mode. Catch us if you can at one of our meetings tonight from 7 to 9 on Twitter @eteaparty












So what are we working on now? Gail Swann tells (almost) all

Our group has been tagged by Nina on her Kitchen Table Writers blog (great news on the Fish Prize, Nina!) to answer questions about our writing process. So we’re going to take turns to reveal at least some of our writing secrets. First up is Gail.

Gail Swann
What am I working on now? 

My novel-in-the-writing is about a remote holiday park, outdated and struggling to stay open after its charismatic proprietor dies. Set against a dramatic landscape and featuring a motley medley of characters, almost anything can happen in this ‘micro-world’. I’m excited about writing it, but still getting to know the sceptical ‘hero’ (or perhaps he’s the anti-hero) who rides in on a motorbike, having inherited this ‘godforsaken place’ from his estranged uncle. 

How does my work differ from others in the genre?

I’m standing in front of a bank of pigeon holes, the kind you see in school or behind a hotel reception. There’s a sign at the top saying ‘adult fiction’. But specifically, where to put a genre-shy manuscript? “This will be your downfall,” I mutter to myself as my eyes scan the categories.  I think my work is different, in that it taps in to a cross section of genres. I like to bring the pace and tautness of a crime thriller to the whole ‘personal change and development’ thing. I go with my characters on whatever arduous journey they happen to be making in life. But isn’t that the case for every writer? My work includes mystery and misery, love and crime, the fall out of war, the complexity of family, the unreliable mind. Settings are usually urban, a little bit ‘lit noir’, the sea is always in there somewhere, there are villains and there is some social history.  Always from a male point of view, by the way. 

Why do I write what I do?

As a little tot, before I could read and write, I used to draw stories. I remember I drew a girl called Shirley who fell off a cliff.  I drew page after page of Shirley’s subsequent adventures in a wheelchair with a bunch of siblings at her side. I would recount the story in words (in glorious detail) to anyone unfortunate enough to comment on my drawing. At primary school I wrote the longest stories in the class, and so it went on. A succession of characters’ lives, lived in my head, year on year. I couldn’t understand why most other kids didn’t inhabit these imaginary worlds in their play time.  I was many years into adulthood before I realised that books (generally) weren’t written in peoples’ spare time. My career was off in another direction by then and so my writing work to date has, indeed, been written in my spare time. 

What is your writing process?

I usually start with a visual of a place. It might be a landscape, a room, or even a shop doorway. I need that anchor. Prologues may or may not be in writing-vogue, but for me, the place is the prologue. The characters enter the scene already formed. I take them as they come, and work with them. I don’t construct them. As for the story… well, wouldn’t you like to know? (because at this point, I don’t)

Writing is such a magical process. Only as I write, does it all come through. I’m sure many writers experience the same but I do admire those who can plot and plan effectively. I get blocked if I try to plan too much. I use a notebook to get all these impressions down, and to play with strands of story. But most often I end up writing loads of back story. Perhaps I need to do that to understand these people that have popped up in my random environment!

As soon as I’ve got enough ‘oomph’ I take it on to the computer. I’m quite a precise writer. Not sure I could cope with NaNoWriMo. I do enjoy crafting the scene or the description or dialogue, there and then. It doesn’t mean I won’t change it later though. I am quite brutal and I never keep previous versions. I like to think each change is for the better.

Once I’ve got quite far in, I can see the plot (or not) and the issues it throws up, and start to get a bit more strategic.

 I love writing. It defines me. I really will have to find a way to stop only doing it in my spare time!

Thanks Gail – I for one am finding your WIP intriguing and very engaging. I can’t wait to know what’s going to happen next. I think we should also tell readers this is your third bash at a novel – not bad for a spare-time occupation!