writing styleOn April 14th I’m talking about writing style at Senate House in London, as part of the Open University’s Contemporary Cultures of Writing series.  I’m hoping to attend at least one of the other events in the series, too.  I’ll be talking about the difference between academic and creative writing styles.

I switch between the two all the time; I’ve just finished writing a 10,000 word article on Shakespeare and Warwickshire dialect, for example, in the same week that I was proofing my forthcoming novel, Devotion.  Writing style is an interesting beast.  I’m curious to know how similar (and how different) people will find the prose of Devotion from the poetry of The Marlowe Papers, for example.  I know that years of poetic compression have affected my prose, and my love of imagery is impossible to bury.  Creative style isn’t (for me, at least) conscious.  It is just how I have come to write, after thousands of hours of practice and thousands more hours of reading.  It’s what pleases my inner ear.  My academic style was learned far more recently; (what I consider to be) good academic writing styles have a lot more in common with each other than creative writing styles.  Academic style is a uniform I put on: practical, sober, persuasive.  My creative style I’m not even sure I could categorise, but it involves changes of clothes (within a recognisable palette of cut and colour) and occasional flashes of nudity.

How does creative writing style develop?  What does one’s writing style say about you as a person? How much is it about being the best (edited, revised, perfected) version of yourself?  These are things worth pondering.

Written on March 2nd, 2015 , Being a writer

Like many writers, I have used my family as material more often than they probably would have liked. For me, poetry began as a way to find out who I was, and why I was who I was, and to process difficult experiences. Through our families we discover and construct who we are, both in opposition and through osmosis. Thus, in learning who I was, I wrote repeatedly about my family.

During that process – which now feels complete – I avoided, on the whole, subjecting my children to the writer’s lens. My family of origin felt like fair game, although I recognise that on a logical level this is nonsense. But my offspring? Quite frankly it is suffering enough to be born to a writer without becoming the focus of your parent’s pen. All the time you are growing up, a writing parent is obsessively interested in something other than you. They have these other text-based offspring growing in their heads and hearts, taking up spaces that are rightfully yours. A writing parent has no right to embarrass their child publicly, beyond the standard parental actions of singing loudly, dancing badly and the like.

I am very aware of my failings as a parent. For a long time I was a deeply unhappy person, and created a fundamental unhappiness in my children. I have admitted this and apologised to them; something my mother could never do, though I longed for that acknowledgement. So each generation improves on the last. But the legacy of my longstanding depression, even though it is now firmly in the past, is something that lodged, to varying degrees, in my sons, and there are still mountains they must climb, rivers they must cross, as a result. Would that I could undo the damage that I did.

But it seems the damage is undoing on its own, bit by bit. For the last few years, my created family has been fractured. The hurt I originated in my offspring played out nastily between them until there was more than one person that couldn’t be in the same room at the same time. I know I handled the whole thing very badly. Too much invested; too much at stake; too much emotion in play.

But this Christmas, a peace was made. And it was made for me. Unknown to me, my eldest son texted my youngest son, and asked him to spare four hours to make the 100-mile trip so they could not only be in the same room together, but – for my sake – to be in the same photograph, with their two siblings, for the first time since 2008. I had no idea what had happened until Christmas Day, when I unwrapped that photograph of all four of my offspring. I was speechless with tears. The best present I have ever been given is my family. To know that I haven’t completely screwed it up. To know that they are able to come together, and perhaps even one day to forgive each other, in their love for me. That’s really something.

Written on December 30th, 2014 , Being a writer, learning experiences Tags:

Ros Barber wins the Desmond Elliott Prize 2013No question about it, I had an extraordinary year.

On my birthday in January I was given one of the best presents I have ever had: I was asked to step in and teach a week at Arvon Lumb Bank, Yorkshire, at short notice. Coincidentally I was just setting off that morning to spend my birthday weekend in York, so I grabbed a few extra jumpers and some teaching materials, and drove Northwards in the snow.  The week was amazing, and I could not have asked for a kinder or more-experienced co-tutor than Chris Wakling, who (with more than fifty Arvons under his belt) rapidly brought me up to speed. The week held some interesting challenges but I loved pretty much every minute of it and returned on a high…

Only to fracture my coccyx the very next day in a seesaw accident.  Thanks husband!  (Always good at bringing me down to earth). One thing I won’t miss about 2013 has been twelve months of sore sitting.  It still gives me gyp now. And for a while there, it was real pain in the arse.

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Written on January 7th, 2014 , Being a writer, learning experiences, The Marlowe Papers

Yesterday, the day went to the Wantage (not just) Betjeman Festival.   After giving the dog his customary walk, and failing to do my daily yoga, leaving at nine to drive to Portsmouth and pick up a big fan of The Marlowe Papers who I’ve got to know a little over the last few months via Facebook and Twitter.  She’ s disabled and the public transport between Portsmouth and Wantage isn’t the easiest to negotiate even for the most sprightly of us – and I thought, what the heck, spare seat in the car, only a small diversion off an alternative route, maybe half an hour longer in total.  We got there an hour early so we could have lunch which was on her as a thank you (she also gave me a very lovely planted flower arrangement). The disabled badge was handy parking-wise.

I ran a creative writing workshop for seven people from 1-3pm;  they were a good bunch, willing and good-humoured, and Dorothy, chief organiser there at the Vale & Downland museum, commented on the laughter coming through the walls.    Between 3.15 and 5.30 I wrote just over 400 words of the next novel at a table in the cafe.  From 6 until 7 I did my scheduled reading and talk on The Marlowe Papers.  A fabulously lively and interested audience asked some great questions after the reading and – as usual – we could easily have gone on, but there was another event slated.    Then back to Brighton via Portsmouth, roof down all the way (the chief benefit of travelling by car, in my view) and pretty much straight to bed. Read the rest of this entry »

Written on October 31st, 2012 , Being a writer

Collective consciousness by ErevisI have made a commitment, for about five years now, not to expose myself to the daily news. I neither listen to it, nor watch it.  If a news bulletin begins, I immediately switch over or mute the volume until it’s over.  Because the news is always bad news, I find it has a toxic effect on my mood, and since I discovered that my success in life is significantly dependent on how joyful and positive I feel, I recognised that banishing the news was an essential career move.  I balance my need for positivity with my need to know what’s going on in the world by subscribing to The Week – a condensed, politically-neutral overview of current affairs that brings considerable pleasure to my leisurely weekend breakfasts.  I often get a whiff of what’s going on via Twitter, but as I’m now fully immersed in the writing of the next novel, I’ve been deliberately working in the library these last three weeks in order to escape the distraction of Wifi.  Thus I had no idea until today that a five-year-old girl had been abducted, and that her name was April Jones.

I saw it as I was leaving the gym after my morning swim – they have News 24 permanently on one of the monitors there, spewing out its subtitles under the tedious moronically-lyricked dance music.  And as I was passing there appeared on the screen ‘police have arrested a man suspected of murdering missing 5-year-old April Jones’.  I stopped dead.  April Jones is the name of the central female character in my new novel.
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Written on October 5th, 2012 , Being a writer

As a friend of mine posted on Facebook recently, ‘summer this year was on a Tuesday’.  The creative Yorkshire enclave of Hebden Bridge has experienced a particularly British summer this year, and the week before we arrived for the New Blood (New Novelists) event at Hebden Bridge Arts festival had suffered serious flooding.  One result of this was that Sophie Coulombeau and I, who met for the first time for a cup tea before the cafe closed (forcing us to shelter from the light drizzle in the White Swan) failed to eat before eating ceased to be an option.  In the Swan we bumped into Peter Salmon, who recognised us as fellow New Novelists from the fact that our we all simultaneously received a text from the organiser.  He had wisely (as it turned out, though we weren’t sure at the time) opted for the pub’s fish pie.

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Written on July 6th, 2012 , Being a writer, Other writers

Or, the most useful thing I ever learnt from The Catalyst Club

It is perhaps somewhat of a cliche that writers and wine have a special relationship. Like Reagan and Thatcher, like a sprain and brace, one provides appropriate support for the other.  If you want to have a successful book launch, and you’d like lots of writers to attend, you’d better provide wine.  Preferably free wine.  Writers appreciate free wine most of all because, contrary to public perceptions, many writers (unless they also have Proper Jobs) are strapped for cash.  Thus, understandably, all charitable contributions to the writerly gullet (both solid and liquid) are gratefully received.  Wine is perceived as more sophisticated than beer, and writers like to feel sophisticated.  I prefer a good still cider to a glass of wine any day of the week, but am considered an oddity among my writing colleagues.  In any case, my affinity for cider is largely explained by a previous affinity for wine.

The key to good writing is not to struggle, but to relax and allow it to flow.    A little wine can help.   Read the rest of this entry »

Written on March 7th, 2012 , Being a writer Tags:

 Over the weekend, the cover proof for The Marlowe Papers arrived. I swear it’s the most beautiful object I’ve ever held in my hands. The photograph doesn’t do it justice – the apple, and Fay Weldon’s quote, is in brown foil, the grub and stalk in gold. The spine is beige rather than yellow. The simplicity of the design, the ‘drawn’ lettering on the spine, the hand-crafted feel, the delicious surprise (which I have resisted revealing) on the back cover … I love everything about it. It is wonderful to think that such a beautiful looking object is going to be the container for my words. I feel valued. Which is something I know many authors, and especially many poets, do not particularly feel these days.  And for such a delicious, opulent literary object to be created in an age where people discuss the imminent Death of The Book… it feels truly special.

Perhaps it’s an antidote. I like my Kindle and have nothing at all against e-books (unlike an author friend of mine who says the ‘e’ in ‘e-book’ stands for ‘evil’). Nevertheless I love books as objects, almost to the point of fetishism. I know I would want to own this one, even if it wasn’t mine.

How thrilling, after such a long time researching and writing something I wasn’t always convinced would see the light of day, let alone snare the interest of a major publisher, that the words are so appreciated that my publisher has created something truly exceptional to hold them.  So thank you, Carole, Alice and the design team at Sceptre, thank you Jon Contino, for creating this thing of extraordinary beauty.  It almost made me cry.

Written on February 20th, 2012 , Being a writer, The Marlowe Papers Tags: ,

So here’s a copy of the bound proof of The Marlowe Papers on my writing desk at the end of 2011.  At the beginning of 2011 there was no inkling that such a thing was likely to exist.   The novel in verse had been written and the four friends to whom I’d given typescripts had all come back saying it was amazing, but then friends generally say that.  That’s why they’re friends.  My agent (of a decades standing) had said it was ‘a real treat’ and like nothing she’d ever read before. That phrase set the fuel-light blinking. If you know anything about publishing, you’ll recognise that being like nothing an agent has ever read before isn’t necessarily a Good Thing.  If something is not like anything else, it doesn’t fit into a comfortable marketing pigeon hole.  You can’t tell people it’s The Next [Insert Successful Author/Book Here]. And my patient agent knew very well (having submitted, and oh-so-nearly-sold three previous prose novels of mine) that I am very good at writing things that editors think are wonderful but the marketing people can’t work out how to market.

Some weeks had gone by and I’d twice e-mailed my agent with ideas of editors who might, nevertheless, be interested in taking a glance at it. No response. This was the engine cutting out and the vehicle coasting to a stop on the hard shoulder. Agents, I’m told, never ‘sack’ their authors. They just ignore them until they go away. So there I was with four-years’ worth of passion-project in my lap and no way forward. How did I turn things around so spectacularly?

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Here we are at the end of another year.  But not any old year.  For me, 2011 was exceptional. In March, I landed the major book deal I had dreamt about since I was 9 year years old.  In May, I was awarded the doctorate I had worked solidly towards for four years and wanted since my early twenties.    Three weeks ago I was announced joint winner of the Calvin and Rose G Hoffmann Prize for a distinguished work on Christopher Marlowe.  And to round the year off nicely, I received the bound proof of The Marlowe Papers just before Christmas.    Full of typesetter’s errors it may be, but it is still utterly beautiful. 2012 looks very promising indeed.

Anyone who has known me (or of me) for a while will appreciate that something very different is happening.  Up to this point I was the author of three collections of poetry, selling only a few hundred copies each;  a University of  Sussex tutor in creative writing for 12 years for the now (sadly defunct) CCE and, despite some prizes and readings now and again, very much a minor figure on the British literary scene.   But in 2012  my verse novel  is being launched by Sceptre (the literary arm of Hodder and Stoughton) in the UK and St Martin’s Press (part of Macmillan) in the US.   On the back of Sceptre’s proof copy it says, ‘Discover the literary debut of the year’.   So what happened?

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Ros Barber

Novelist, poet, scholar