Sunday, December 23, 2007

Charlotte Lamb

The novelist Charlotte Lamb - and me, sporting a dazzling pair of cerise earrings - on holiday in France, early 80s

It would have been my mother's 70th birthday today. She died in October 2000. I've posted this photo and blogged about it on the memorial site I run for her over at

What would my mother, author of over 150 published novels, have said about my sloth in finishing my current book? She'd probably have thrown the local paper at me and told me to get a job as a waitress instead - her usual riposte whenever I discussed my writing with her.

Happy Birthday, Mum! Wherever you are ...

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Merry Christmas!

Merry Christmas and a Very Happy New Year to all readers of Raw Light - of which there is a steadily growing number, so I thank you all for finding me and for returning so frequently. Your company makes the effort worthwhile.

I apologise for not having blogged up the revised draft of my own poem (see writing exercises below). It has been rewritten. And I have my notes in rough draft ready to accompany it. I'm looking at the damn thing right now. Unfortunately, the spirit may be willing but the flesh is all blogged-out. In other words, you will have to be patient a little longer.

For those following the writing exercises, I hope you all read some new poetry over the Christmas break - if you get one - and write something of your own in response to it.

I, meanwhile, have to compose a short Christmas message for a local newspaper in my capacity as this year's Warwick Poet Laureate. I feel like the Queen. Though with not so many pastel outfits in my wardrobe.

Have a great holiday, and do keep coming back to Raw Light in 2008!

Jane x

Friday, December 14, 2007

A Dark Place: some thoughts on the redrafting process

Structural Shifts
In the original draft of A Dark Place, Sorlil gives us 3 stanzas of 5 lines, and a concluding stanza of only 4. Some of the lines in the first half of the poem are quite short. This can feel unsettling if you tend to get obsessed with symmetry when writing, if you're always looking for the most pleasing 'shape' on the page.

I'm not saying that's how Sorlil operates, since I can't possibly know that, but her first draft does have a solid, boxy shape that feels very much on its way to being a final draft. And in her own comment below, she mentions structure as the key element in her revision choices. So why, assuming a quest for 'better' structure, does the poet choose to dissolve her original box shape in favour of looser two-line stanzas?

The first draft perhaps felt a little too close to note form, so she wanted to extend it without having to rewrite. When revising, we usually prefer to work with what's already there rather than write new material, mainly because of natural human laziness but also because revision uses a different set of skills to those we use when creating, and it's not always easy to swop sides, as it were, half way through.

Perhaps she also felt a certain structural gravitas was required to match and contain that seriousness. The five-liner of her first draft may have felt too uneven faced with those four-sided 'slabs' and 'rectangles', yet a four-liner would have presented other problems - such as what to do with the lost fifth line? and would the closed box structure of a four line stanza pull the poem shut instead of opening it up?

Having hit the right note in the two-line stanzas, she extends the line for greater weight, adding 'up' for the sound echo with 'poplars', and for the first few stanzas this new draft feels strong, decisive, uncompromising.

Break-Points & Buffers
Then we hit a snag. The well-known slogan Arbeit macht frei - 'Work shall set you free' - from the original draft has vanished. And this may be Sorlil's first mistake, as it lent an important air of bitterness to the poem, and also provided an important break-point between the inhuman look of the place and the introduction of live human beings - the guard, the poet-narrator herself, the daughter of a survivor, the generic 'you' who flinches at the end.

Structure begins to break down in the absence of that buffering line, which should have separated the two halves of the poem.

The ending feels rushed: 'And now a daughter of a survivor can't stop//talking'. This too-drastic stanza break needs to be rethought. It's not only rupturing the flow of the poem but its arbitrariness actually draws attention to the way the poet has gone about redrafting, rather like a trick that gives away the magician's secrets.

Of course, the endings of poems are notoriously difficult. I've written about them before on Raw Light, most notably here and here, so I won't spend too long on this. In the first draft, the simplicity of those two lines, 'You flinch when I say/I caught the bus from Dachau' works tremendously well within the context of that particular draft. But in this second draft, we're into a new structure where those lines don't fit anymore. So we get that last line in quotation marks - unnecessarily - and placed alone, cut off from the two-line stanza structure as though for additional emphasis. Which it can't carry off.

If this was my poem, I'd be inclined to shift earlier parts of the poem about in order to get back into a position where I could use those original last two lines more or less exactly as they appear in the first draft.

In particular, that unspecified 'you' - a useful poetic device, if somewhat over-used in contemporary poetry - opens the poem up at the close by inviting the reader to identify with it. Yet the second draft obscures 'you' by burying it hurriedly in the middle of a line - a line which is incidentally too long for the established rhythm, making the poem sound breathless and uncertain at that point instead of centred and ready to close.

Shifting the Focus of Revision with each Poem
The closer a poem gets to the real thing, to being fully alive and aware of itself, the less we need an overview of the poem's problems. By that stage, looking at word and line detail becomes the key issue during redrafting. It's particularly vital not to mess too much with structures if they worked just fine in the first draft, or only needed tweaking. Not that I think the shift to couplets was necessarily a mistake here. The poem feels more grave and measured now, less conversational.

But all decisions have a knock-on effect, and in this draft, further adjustments may need to be made in order to compensate for that change. It's also a possibility that the charm of the original draft lay to some extent in that conversational tone - the sight of those inhuman slabs versus the intimate voice of the poet in your head - and a push to regain that might be something for Sorlil to explore in a future draft.

Many thanks to Sorlil for handing over her two drafts to be manhandled in public by such a blunt and insensitive critic. Usual reminder to take everything with a large pinch of poet's salt; another person might say exactly the opposite, and who can be sure which approach is best except Sorlil herself?

A Dark Place: Sorlil's revised draft


A Dark Place

Gravelled highway manned by poplars.
In the far distance memorials rise up:

Russian Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant.
So many children, a school excursion.

A sea of slabs, rectangles like plant beds
but instead outlines of barrack bunks.

The camp guide offers to take
my photo at the gate. It’s smaller than I

imagined. I think logistics:
how did they all fit?

I dreamt of the chimneys in black and white.
And now a daughter of a survivor can’t stop

talking, a town in Bavaria can’t stand
the connotations and you flinch when I say

“I caught the bus from Dachau”.

Poetry in Progress
Sorlil's comments on the revision process

"I've not changed a great deal, mostly just the format. I can't say I'm particularly happy with it, it feels rather bland and screams of being exactly what it is - an exercise poem!

Interesting exercise nonetheless. I tend to work more methodically even on first drafts and perhaps I need to practice 'loosening up' to allow the poem room to grow before constraining it with a critical eye."

You can read the first draft of this poem here.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Sea Cave: some thoughts on the revision process

Firstly, many thanks to Julie for following this exercise and then bravely sending her two drafts in.


I gave a few reactions to Julie's first draft in the Comment box below the First Drafts post and, since she asked for some clues, suggested how she might go about revising it. So you might want to look at that too.

Working with First Drafts
As Julie points out, this is not so much a first draft as a collection of sensory responses to an idea or vision she had after reading my initial post.

So a workable first draft needs more than a collection of single notes to support it, otherwise it's likely to run into problems during the redrafting process.

Better to keep such running drafts in your head rather than putting them down on paper before they are properly 'formed'. These proto-drafts can be played with mentally whilst doing something slightly mechanical like driving long distances, walking, doing the washing-up, or making love (only kidding!), where your subconscious can work behind the scenes on finding the best shape for them - a shape which will eventually become your first draft.

Second Draft Behaviour
The second draft of Julie's poem is an excellent example of what happens when revision pulls in on itself - probably due to this lack of structure in the initial draft - and sucks the movement out of the poem, or shifts it 'away from epic narrative', as Julie says in her accompanying note.

Quite rightly searching for a structure for this poem, since one didn't exist in her first draft, Julie has imposed a structure on the poem which doesn't fit her original vision. For this, she has chosen a default structure, if you like, based on the tight metrics of a two-beat rhyming couplet.

The original draft was free and loose, and displayed such traditional traits only in its dying moments; a last minute shift, by the way, which is classic first draft behaviour, rather like a lifelong atheist suddenly professing a belief in God on his or her deathbed - just in case!

If that happened in my own work, my first instinct would be to mistrust an impulse which led me to start rhyming and formalising a previously free piece of writing. Julie has done the opposite - not necessarily the wrong thing, in every case - and jettisoned the free writing to concentrate on the more formal part of her first draft, seen emerging in the last few lines.

My instinct here would be to unpick the stitches by returning to the initial draft and beginning a second 'second' draft, i.e. putting the first 'second' aside, and reserving the right to return to it later. This third draft would probably shift to the opposite extreme, looking to expand rather than contract the poem.

Again, many thanks to Julie for allowing me to use her poem as a pincushion. Whether you agree or disagree, please feel free to add your own observations below.

Remember, it's never a good idea to believe someone's advice if it goes against your own instincts as a writer. It can go against your pride, your ego, even your sense of identity, but never your instincts.

This post has been about under-writing as much as anything else; see David Morley's blog for some well-expressed thoughts on the opposite problem of over-writing.

Monday, December 10, 2007

Julie's Second Draft of 'Sea Cave'

(revised draft)

steel shadow
whispered whine
stooping darkness
hiss of sea air
dying light
lucid blindness
winding tight

livid silence
velvet claws
hells guano
gaping jaws
rippling water
pearly tide
Charon's ride


Julie's comments on the revision process

"I wrote the first draft Sea Cave almost immediately after having my imagination fired by Pont du Gard; based on the visual image and sense impressions of various sea caves or flooded underground mines I have been in. Wrote it straight off in fifteen minutes, plus a few minutes tweaking, trying to nail the impressions with words.

Second draft – Read your comments, thought about what you’d suggested rather than considering the poem itself, then came back to it after 48 hours.

Cleared out one of my static blogs, posted it, and used red to highlight what was going to be slashed, and blue where I worked in a new idea. Tried to hold the title in mind, but rework the image suggestions so the bats are suggested etc and moved it away from epic narrative. I haven’t had as much fun in years.

With thanks for your suggestions, Julie."

Saturday, December 08, 2007

First Drafts: 'On Dark Places'

You will find below the first drafts of workshop poems 'on dark places'.

If anyone else would like to follow this exercise (see earlier post, 15 minutes first draft, not incl. thinking time) please email me your poems by midnight, Wednesday 12th December.

Julie (see below) found it tricky, thinking about the project first without writing anything down. That's generally how I work, but I expect it won't suit everyone. I deliberately block out concrete 'lines' during this stage, though phrases which stick in my mind are allowed. It means I can freewheel through a large range of wobbly possibilities - without committing myself or losing momentum through note-making - until I find the image or idea that locks on and forces me, often compulsively, to paper.

A revised draft of my own poem will appear, with comments on the process, within the next week. Plus any other revised drafts sent to me.


Pont Du Gard

Stone hall for the shrunken,
black pit interior
fish-scaled in urine.
And the grim shadows of men
blocking the light.
Broad squares of sun-flash,
rectangular access
to blind air and buffet.
Swimmers below
pale fins burning in water.
We sank back into darkness
at the next space,
hands well-worn on stone
blackened with water,
the rough runnels of history.
Corrugated, filigree depths
where the heart struggles to rise.
Pinioned to single file,
we passed through the low-roofed
night haul of the Roman.
Troll-trod, dwarf dominion.
Afterwards, hot dust and olives,
a dazzle of strangers
met on the long road backwards.

Jane Holland


Sea Cave

sight dies
saturnine dark
hiss of sea air

blind blind
blind as bats the yawning jaws
hells droppings
dreams shrink to nighmares
boats extinguished
rolling ripples
styx to
empty places

darkness wrapping
winding sheet
by livid silence

echoes of miles and miles and miles

rocking bark
slushing tips
oil oil drippling
tallow wax

scorpion fringed
curling fingers
steel blackness
tea lights

chill vacuum
cut rock
blind senses
freezing slope

scraping bone
sinking voices
mole cladding
edging gripping ledging
tactile stripped

tongue is drying
light is crawling
gloom is rising
searing vision

Virtual Journey


A Dark Place

Gravel highway guarded by poplars.
In the far distance memorials rise
Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Protestant.
A sea of slabs, rectangles like
plant beds. But barrack bunks instead.

Arbeit Macht Frei
The camp guide offers
to take my picture at the gate.
It’s smaller than I imagined.
How did they fit them all through?

I dreamt of the chimneys
in black and white. Daughter
of a survivor can’t stop talking
all the way through the chamber.

A town in Bavaria
can’t stand the connotations.
You flinch when I say
I caught the bus from Dachau.

Poetry In Progress


December. The month of the drowned god.

Milk-water seeps from the clay’s glands,

Clots the forest paths, thickens

Through the veins of the wood.

Late afternoon. Rooks creak

in the darkness, and westward

a tideline of sun is washed by black waves.

Greedy branches crane to cram night’s gullet

With his brief, red fruit.

Expulsion of the Blatant Beast


Friday, December 07, 2007

Poetry Writing Exercise No. 1: On Dark Places

In this, the first of my online writing exercises, I'm going to write a poem on the theme of 'dark places'.

Many poets seem obsessed with death and dark places. It's a common enough preoccupation, and who can blame us? We all know it has to end some day. And what comes after life has been a constant source of fascination for writers, artists and shamen since - I have no doubt - the dawn of civilisation. But, of course, death is not the only source of darkness in our lives. So it's a pretty broad concept.

There are no other rules about content, length, or form, though I am setting a time limit for this, so anyone wanting to join in can do so on an equal footing with everyone else. I shall write for 15 minutes - thinking time is not included in this, so don't start writing until you feel ready!

This exercise, however, comes in two parts. First, I shall write a poem. Then, I shall revise it. The second part is absolutely vital and shouldn't be treated as a formality.

I shall publish the first draft when my fifteen minutes writing time is up. With no revisions or personal comments. I'll then invite others to email their first drafts for publication alongside it. Once any poems sent in are also up on the site, I shall revise the poem within a seven day time limit, and publish the result here. Likewise with any revised poems from other people.

The seven days is to allow time for the poem to 'sink in', which is a vital factor in revision. I haven't set a time limit for the actual revision time, because it's not something which can be hurried. But the poem which emerges after revision will still only be a draft. (In fact, all poems are drafts, even those which have been published. There's something fluid about a poem, which means it can change shape even at a late stage in its development.)

Afterwards, we can discuss the revisions. Comments on first drafts will be allowed, because some feedback can be useful once the bare bones of a poem are in place. I don't think I'd ever want someone to see a poem at such an early stage otherwise, but this is an artificial exercise, designed to open up debate about methods of revision.

Look out for the first draft of my workshop poem this weekend, and if writing your own, you can email it to me by Word attachment at j.holland442 @ (Only be sure to write Poetry Workshop in the subject line, in case I delete it by accident!)

You can ask for your poem to be posted anonymously, under a pen-name, or as yourself. Links to your blog or website can be included. Deadline for first drafts to arrive will be midnight on Wednesday 12th December.

Theme: On Dark Places

Write for 15 minutes, then put first draft aside. Revise at length. The aim is to produce a more polished draft within 7 days.

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Weird fiction, writing methods, and radio plays

The novelist China Miéville has just joined the Creative Writing faculty team at Warwick University and was reading from some work-in-progress tonight at Warwick Arts Centre.

I went along to hear him with my husband, who's a big CM fan and massively well-read in the fields of sci-fi, fantasy and weird fiction. Which is more than I am, unfortunately. I have my compulsive favourites from which I rarely deviate, like most people who read fiction of those kinds, but my general understanding of 'fantastic' fiction is nowhere near comprehensive. So it was good to have him along with me, to answer my occasional whispered questions and to fill me in on China's background and development as a writer.

Yet even though China Miéville isn't the kind of writer whose work I would normally read, I did find the extract from his current ms draft interesting and challenging, and the Q&A at the end particularly useful to me as a writer.

I asked about his basic writing methods during the Q&A. CM explained that he doesn't follow any set pattern or routine as a writer. During some novels, he may write 1000 words a day; with others, as much as 4-5000. And that daily word tally doesn't seem to have any discernible connection with quality. Often, he told us, the steaming 5000 word session has produced excellent writing, whilst the slower 1000 word effort has ended up being scrapped!

Apparently, his methods of revision are equally changeable from novel to novel. Some books have been revised only after finishing the first draft. With others, revisions have been necessary during the initial writing. With some of his earlier books he resisted the advice of editors; later on, he learnt to accept the editorial process and now feels it can be a good thing for writers.

He later revealed that he works with a flow-chart of the novel, preferring to plot his books down to the last detail. The chart is pinned up on the wall beside him as he writes, and if he deviates from the scheme in any way, he marks the deviation on the chart and re-jigs the whole schema to make sure he still knows how the book is going to end.

But the only certain thing he could say about the actual writing of a novel - for the benefit of those in the room who might be struggling with first novels in draft - was that every word you manage to write is one less that has to be written.

So it was a fascinating Q&A session, during which he also spoke at length about the increased focus on politics in children's writing in general, and the background to the writing of several of his novels. He also said that 'Iron Council' was his personal favourite amongst his books to date.

As I didn't take notes verbatim, I hope I haven't misrepresented China Miéville's views and comments here.

I took great heart from his description of varying writing methods, knowing how impossible it is for me to stick to any one way of writing anything. I've always considered it one of my great weaknesses as a writer, but if I can just keep pushing the words out, I suppose it doesn't need to be.

I also met someone who works in radio script development for the BBC, over drinks in the bar afterwards, and spoke to her briefly about a radio play of mine that has been languishing for several years on my - rather over-crowded! - back burner of ongoing projects. It would be good to work on that again, hard graft though it was; a particularly demanding medium, radio, coming close to poetry in its need for accuracy and a fearless grasp of the 'less is more' school of writing.

Plenty of work to keep me busy this winter, then. So much choice, so little time. But as China Miéville said, every word you write ...

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Writing Exercises: Should I/Shouldn't I?

Today, I spotted on a fellow blogger's blog - how's that for prose style? - some writing exercises, one exercise per blog entry, which he was first explaining and then attempting. Not an original idea - I've seen it elsewhere - but when the posts are kept short, it can make interesting bloggery.

I'm now considering whether I could/should adapt the idea for Raw Light, i.e. think up some workshop-style poetry writing ideas, then follow them myself, one by one, posting up the results. Not too many, perhaps. But enough to make a sequence of posts which could be linked for those following the exercises. I imagine such a thing would be anathema to some, but fun reading for others. Perhaps it will depend on how well I execute the exercises, i.e. whether the resulting poems are any damn good.

Thoughts, groans, responses?