For many, this year’s Valentine’s Day will be like no other. If you are spending the day apart from your loved ones, and don’t fancy the card selection at your local Tesco, writing a poem can be a more personal way to reach out and connect. Indeed, to paraphrase John Donne, “more than kisses, [poems] mingle souls”.
Here are some poems to take inspiration from, as well as some prompts to help you get that first line on the page.
Make a list
In her sonnet, How Do I Love Thee, Elizabeth Barrett Browning demonstrates the effectiveness of staying power when it comes to writing romance. After setting out to count the ways, the poem sticks determinedly to its opening concept – how do I love thee – answering the question from every possible angle, reaching to “the depth and breadth and height / My soul can reach”.
How do I love thee demonstrates how incorporating a list within a poem can make for a persuasive and intimate piece of writing. We see this again, in an altogether sillier way, in Ways of Making Love, by Hera Lindsay Bird. In her poem, Bird unfolds a surprising and decidedly unsexy list of similes to “answer” the instructional title of the poem:
Like a metal detector detecting another metal detector.
Like two lonely scholars in the dark clefts of the Cyrillic alphabet.
Like an ancient star slowly getting sucked into a black hole.
Whether it’s heartfelt or more lighthearted, a list poem is an opportunity to remember the quirks that make up a relationship. Half prayer, half receipt, it can quantify the seemingly unquantifiable, as the need to find the next answer to the opening question forces you to think creatively and explore beyond the obvious.
Why not begin with a title like “Each Thing You Do”, and challenge yourself to at least forty lines. Or perhaps you might want to answer Barrett Browning’s original question in light of our 2021 reality:
I love you further than two metres;
I love you beyond the limits of my daily walk.
Ways of Making Love might not live up to the eroticism of its title, but Selima Hill’s Desire’s a Desire certainly delivers:
It taunts me
like the muzzle of a gun;
it sinks into my soul like chilled honey
packed into the depths of treacherous wounds;
In this variation of the list poem, Hill takes longing as her starting point and recounts its effects in sensual, almost painful detail. Similarly, in Kim Addionzo’s For Desire, the poet celebrates what it is to want without restraint or guilt, whether that’s “the strongest cheese”, the “good wine”, or “the lover who yanks open the door / of his house and presses me to the wall”. In Fucking in Cornwall, Ella Frears embraces the less-than-glamorous realities of sex and desire:
The rain is thick and there’s half a rainbow
over the damp beach; just put your hand up my top.
It may not be the stuff of the big-budget period drama, but it’s joyful in its nostalgia for the awkward fumbling of first love, as well as of the rainy delights of the English seaside.
Each of these poems celebrates the power of declaring longing and need; of articulating the body and what it wants.
Perhaps you’ll notice something familiar about the opening lines of Harryette Mullen’s Dim Lady:
My honeybunch’s peepers are nothing like neon. Today’s special at Red Lobster is redder than her kisser. If Liquid Paper is white, her racks are institutional beige. If her mop were Slinkys, dishwater Slinkys would grow on her noggin.
In this fast-paced ode, Mullen takes Shakespeare’s famous Sonnet 130 (“My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun”) — itself a parody — and effectively scribbles all over it. While she maintains the style of the original, she substitutes almost every word with a contemporary reference to mass consumer culture, rendering the whole declaration — and the love industry — joyfully ridiculous.
Dim Lady demonstrates the power of the re-write and celebrates the fact that poetry – like love – can be a playful and adaptable collaboration. Like the Zoom pub quiz and online escape room, Mullen’s word substitution is a game that can be played at whatever distance.
Why not each take Sonnet 130 and come up with your own versions using a different frame of reference. Types of plant? TV programmes? Biscuit brands? Then swap and compare results.
And remember, whatever style you decide to try this Valentine’s Day, keep in mind the poet Les Murray’s sage advice:
The best love poems are known
as such to the lovers alone.
When it comes to writing your own verse, remember, it’s the thought that counts.
She might be the world’s most famous romance writer, nay the highest selling living author bar none, but there’s little room for flowers and chocolates in Danielle Steel’s writing regime. In a recent interview she laughed at the idea of young people insisting on a work-life balance, and has claimed she regularly writes for 20 to 22 hours a day, and sometimes 24. The result: 179 books in under 50 years, selling about 800m copies.
Some aspiring novelists might just have cancelled their entire lives to get on the Steel plan, but many more are probably wondering if it’s time to try something less demanding. We asked four creative writing teachers for their perspective:
Liam Murray Bell, University of Stirling
Steel’s claim reminds me of the thriller writer Edgar Wallace, who was known to write a novel over the course of a long weekend. He’d retire to his study on a Friday evening and not emerge until the Monday morning, dictating his words to a secretary and stopping only for half-hourly cups of tea. Poor secretary.
The only thing I recognise from that brutal regime is the need for copious amounts of tea. For me, a productive day is four hours of writing. Four hours of focused, uninterrupted time at the keyboard. This morning, I wrote for two hours and managed just shy of 1,000 words. Even that is a decent day; a steady day. To wrestle those hours of writing time free, I’m postponing teaching preparation, leaving my marking until the evening, relying on childcare. Most of all, I’m doing my damnedest to ignore emails. When does Steel answer her emails, is what I want to know.
There have been times, on writing retreats or under threat of impending deadline, when I’ve been known to stretch to six or seven hours. No more, though, because then the words stop making sense and the delete key takes a hammering. I start explaining my plot to the mantelpiece and rehearsing lines of dialogue with the cat. Instead, I go and do something else. It’s amazing how often clarity about your writing comes while washing the dishes, trimming the hedge, taking the dog for a walk. The writers I know are full of anecdotes of story ideas scribbled on bus tickets, or pulling over the car to jot down a poem opening by the side of the road.
It’s often when I’m out for a lunchtime run that I find myself reflecting on what I wrote that morning or find the thread for a scene to write the next day. Haruki Murakami talks about the similar feats of concentration and endurance required for long-distance running and for writing a novel; each endeavour requiring the person to turn up day after day for months or even years. At the University of Stirling, we’ve actually formed a research group to look at the links between creative writing and physical activity because so many writers are also keen runners or cyclists or swimmers.
The appeal of Steel’s process, then, seems to be that every day is race day. But you can’t sustain that. Little and often is my mantra, with every day building momentum. If you manage 200 words today then those are 200 words you didn’t have yesterday. That might take you 15 minutes or it might take six hours; either way, it’s progress. The aim isn’t to get as many words on the page as quickly as possible; the aim is to get the right words on the page, however long it takes.
Sarah Corbett, University of Lancaster
I’m sorry to say there isn’t a formula for how to write a novel (so don’t buy those “how to” books) – only hard graft, staying power, blinding self belief (rescued every morning from the teeth of doubt), and the willingness to meet the devil at the crossroads and outwit him. And to write, rewrite, write, rewrite, write, rewrite …
Perhaps this isn’t very helpful to the beginner; and I have to admit that I’m just finishing my own first novel – after five years. But having taught creative writing for almost 20 years across all genres, here are some things I can say from experience:
1) Read other novels. There’s no getting round this: you have to do a lot of reading – passionate, engaged and risky – but also the kind where you start to notice, and then investigate how the writer does things. Read lots of different types of books too: be curious, endlessly;
2) Practice, practice, practice. Write regularly even if you can only spare an hour in the evening or an afternoon at the weekend. Most writers have other jobs, families, pets, households, and you’d be surprised how much writing gets done in the gaps between other things;
3) Work at your technique at every level of detail from sentencing and phrasing to word choice, creating believable characters, immersive settings, dynamic scenes and authentic dialogue;
4) Write what saddens/moves/frightens/turns you on; write with the whole of your self and the whole of your senses;
5) Join a course, start a group;
6) Write because you enjoy it, and you enjoy a challenge;
7) Be prepared to tear it up and start again;
8) Remember that writing is work, the best kind, that transports and enchants you;
9) Keep going…;
10) Write your own rules.
So how did I write my novel? Slowly – I published two poetry collections in the same period, did a lot of teaching and saw my son through his GCSEs and A-levels – and with a lot of gutting and rewriting; begging more experienced friends to read it and give me their toughest, most honest advice, and then acting on it, even when it meant radical cuts and changes.
Mine is a literary novel – about family, home and shame – but with a psychological twist. The character and her story came to me all in one go on the train home from Manchester after an unsettling encounter in Waterstones, and since then it’s been a process of excavation, as if the novel already existed somewhere in the world, and I just had to keep uncovering it, slowly, layer by layer. I’m still adding scenes, taking others away, fine tuning every line. I’m still working out the best way to tell the story, but I know I’m nearly ready to let it go because the next one has already arrived.
Edward Hogan, Open University
For his 2016 book Rest, the writer and Silicon Valley consultant Alex Soojung-Kim Pang collected the routines of creative people throughout history. From the habits of writers such as Charles Dickens, Anthony Trollope, and Alice Munro, he concluded that four hours a day is optimum, and you need to wake up early. Trollope rose at 5am each morning (a servant brought him coffee at half past), and wrote until 8.30am, before going to his job at the post office. On that schedule, he published over 40 novels.
As a writer with a family and a full-time job, I currently follow the 5am method, though I make my own coffee. In theory, this “little and often” approach seems straightforward: if you write 500 words a day, you’ll have a first draft in months. But it isn’t that simple. My first novel took eight years, but my third was pretty much done in 40 days. Writing requires two states of mind: you need the researcher’s brain, the clear-thinking editor’s, but you must be open to the dark mess of creation, too. My routine changes, because I haven’t figured out how to do it yet. When I do, I’ll probably quit.
I’m interested in Steel’s way of working. That sort of immersion, favoured by Kasuo Ishiguro, and Jesse Ball – who claims to write his novels in as little as six days – allows them to retain the vitality of the initial idea.
Paul Sheldon, the author and narrator of Stephen King’s Misery, describes “falling through a hole in the page” when writing. Maybe that’s the sort of compulsion that Steel experiences, and it’s refreshing to hear her address the physicality of the process. Writers are reluctant to talk about the (rare) sensation of extreme focus that results when they become possessed by their work. Rambling about raised heart-rates, losing track of time, and being “in the zone”, can make writing sound like a cross between yoga and golf.
The writer’s routine is where practical concerns meet the more ephemeral subject of inspiration. You have to decide what kind of writer you want to be. Jenny Colgan produces two books a year, and this involves hitting deadlines so that her novels appear around Mother’s Day and the Christmas season. Writing is work, the daily pursuit of a word count. For Hilary Mantel, that sort of regularity is alien. She talks about “flow days” when she has no idea what she’s written until she reads it back. But both writers are at their desks, daily.
The act of writing can be exhilarating, but it’s mostly quite difficult. Then again, it’s not like going down the pit. So if you want to write a novel, and find Steel’s method unappealing, let me refer you to the celebrated and prolific children’s author Jacqueline Wilson, who writes for about half-an-hour a day. In bed.
David Bishop, Edinburgh Napier University
Steel’s regime sounds extreme, but if that works for her – so be it. Every writer has their own unique sweet spot, a time and place where they can produce words that will be ready for reading one day. The trick is finding your personal approach, and also recognising it might not suit every project.
Some people say you must write every day to be a writer. Perhaps, but writing is not simply the act of typing words on paper or screen. There is so much more that goes into creating narratives from your imagination. Reading widely is often the sign of a voracious writer, though there is always the danger of a project being infected by the style or substance of whatever you happen to be reading at the time.
It’s also a myth that you need to write a certain number of words in a session. Some writers do benefit from a daily or weekly target, but others prefer to devote a fixed amount of time to writing, and trust that the words will come. Feeling guilty for not matching another writer’s productivity is certainly not good for your mental health. Besides, quantity is no measure of quality. I once had 600,000 words published in one calendar year, but they certainly weren’t my best work.
The act of not writing is just as important as writing. Never underestimate the importance of staring out of a window or going for a walk. All too often the knottiest story problems can only be untangled by getting away from the desk. If all else fails, try going to sleep and letting your subconscious do the heavy lifting. It’s amazing how often the resting mind can resolve a problem your active thoughts couldn’t fix.
For most writers, finding the best way to write a novel is trial and error: experimenting with different systems until they discover one that chimes. Some writers craft detailed plot outlines as a narrative safety net; others prefer a journey of discovery that could mean wholesale rewrites later. Some work in total silence; others needs background sounds such as music. An idea to spark your imagination is necessary, along with a trajectory to follow – but what happens next is up to you.
Steel has a sign in her office that reads: “There are no miracles. There is only discipline.” To be a writer does not require 22 hours at a desk each day, but Steel is right that there are no miracles, either. If you want to be a writer, you have to write – however you do it. That much is inescapable.
So you want to write a novel? Of course you do. Everyone wants to write a novel at some stage in their lives. While you’re at it, why not make it a popular bestseller? Who wants to write an unpopular worstseller? Therefore, make it a thriller. It worked for Ian Fleming and Frederick Forsyth …
Every now and then I come across excellent advice for the apprentice writer. There was a fine recent article, for example, in The Big Thrill (the house magazine of International Thriller Writers) on “how to lift the saggy middle” of a story. Like baking a cake. And then there is Eden Sharp’s The Thriller Formula, her step-by-step would-be writer’s self-help manual, drawing on both classic books and movies. I felt after reading it that I really ought to be able to put theory into practice (as she does in The Breaks).
But then I thought: why not go straight to the source? Just ask a “New York Times No. 1 bestseller” writer how it’s done. So, as I have recounted here before, I knocked on Lee Child’s door in Manhattan. For the benefit of the lucky Child-virgins who have yet to read the first sentence of his first novel (“I was arrested in Eno’s Diner”), Child, born in Coventry, is the author of the globally huge Jack Reacher series, featuring an XXL ex-army MP drifter vigilante.
It is a golden rule among members of the Magic Circle that, when asked: “How did you do that?”, magicians must do no more than smile mysteriously. Child helpfully twitched aside the curtain and revealed all. Mainly because he wanted to know himself how he did it. He wasn’t quite sure. He only took up writing because he got sacked from Granada TV. Now he has completed 20 novels with another one on the way. And has a Renoir and an Andy Warhol on the wall. Windows looking out over Central Park. Grammar school boy done well.
Cigarettes and coffee
He swears by large amounts of coffee (up to 30 cups, black, per day) and cigarettes (one pack of Camels, maybe two). Supplemented by an occasional pipe (filled with marijuana). “Your main problem is going to be involuntary inhalation,” he said, as I settled down to watch him write, looking over his shoulder, perched on a psychoanalyst’s couch a couple of yards behind him.
Which was about one yard away from total insanity for both of us.
Especially given that I stuck around for about the next nine months as he wrote Make Me: from the first word (“Moving”) through to the last (“needle”), with occasional breathers. A bizarre experiment, I guess, a “howdunnit”, although Child did say he would like to do it all again, possibly on the 50th book.
Maybe I shouldn’t be giving this away for free, but, beyond all the caffeine and nicotine, I think there actually is a magic formula. For a long while I thought it could be summed up in two words: sublime confidence. “This is not the first draft”, Child said, right at the outset, striking a Reacher-like note. “It’s the only draft!”
Don’t plan, don’t map it all out in advance, be spontaneous, instinctive. Enjoy the vast emptiness of the blank page. It will fill. Child compares starting a new book to falling off a cliff. You just have to have faith that there will be a soft landing. Child calls this methodology his patented “clueless” approach.
Look Ma, I’m a writer
To be fair, not all successful writers work like this. Ian Rankin, for one (in his case I relied on conventional channels of communication rather than breaking into his house and staring at him intently for long periods) goes through three or four drafts before he is happy – and makes several pages of notes too.
And yet, with his Rebus series set in Edinburgh, Rankin has produced as many bestsellers as Child. Rebus also demonstrates that your hero does not necessarily have to be 6’5” with biceps the size of Popeye’s. And can be past retiring age too, as per the most recent Even Dogs in the Wild.
Child has a few key pointers for the would-be author: “Write the fast stuff slow and the slow stuff fast.” And: “Ask a question you can’t answer.” Rankin also advises: “No digressions, no lengthy and flowery descriptions.” He has a style, and recurrent “tropes”, but no “system”. And Child is similarly sceptical about Elmore Leonard’s “10 rules of writing”. “‘Never use an adverb’? Never is an adverb!” And what about Leonard’s scorn for starting with the weather? “What if it really is a dark and stormy night? What am I supposed to do, lie?”
Child never disses other writers. OK, almost never (there is one he wants to challenge to unarmed combat). But he is dismissive of a certain writerly attitude, a self-conscious mentality which he summarises as follows: “Hey, Ma, look – I’m writing!” And here we come close to the secret, the magic potion that if you could bottle it would be worth a fortune in book sales. Do the opposite. If you want to be a writer, the secret is: don’t be a writer. Try and forget you are writing (difficult, I know).
This is why both Child and Rankin speak with such reverence for the narrative “voice”. And why both privilege dialogue. The successful writer is a throwback to a vast, lost, oral tradition, pre-Homer. Another thing, fast-forwarding, they share in common: the default alter ego is rock star. It’s all about the vibe. Everything has to sound good when you read it aloud.
Art is theft
But if you seriously want to be a writer, think like a reader. Child explained this to me the other day in relation to his novel, Gone Tomorrow, set in New York, which is now often used to teach creative writing. “I introduce this beautiful mysterious woman. I started out thinking: I want my hero to go to bed with her. And then I thought: hold on, isn’t the reader going to be asking: ‘What if she is … bad?’” A small but crucial tweak: one letter – from bed to bad.
“So!“ you might well conclude, “isn’t this bloke like one of those con men who offer to show you how to make a fortune (for a modest outlay) and you think: ‘Well, why don’t you do it then?’” Fair comment. Which is why I am starting a novel right now about an upstart fan who tricks his way into a successful writer’s apartment and steals all his best ideas. I don’t know why, it just came to me in a flash of inspiration. Maybe that, in a word, is the core of all great art: theft.