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Friday, 27 November 2020

Weekly writing prompt: List of deaths


List: Deaths

In the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course in February, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend, to carry you through the winter – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, start inventing, get your pen moving, and have fun!

This week's prompt is a list exercise: a list of deaths. All the ways that people could die, either in general or in your story's world specifically.

This might seem a gloomy exercise, especially in the middle of a pandemic, but once you get past the initial few, it quickly becomes fascinating and yes, even funny, as you run out of more likely deaths and head into the realms of the bizarre.

Why deaths? First, everyone does die, eventually, so even if you don't kill off any characters, people in their back stories will have died. Second, death and danger are vital sources of peril and narrative tension in stories. And third, and most importantly, the ways people die tell you an enormous amount about the time and the world.

Take Twitter's Medieval Death Bot, for example. It tweets real deaths from medieval coroners' rolls between 1200 and 1500, and the results are bizarre and illuminating. A surprising number of people seem to have got drunk, fallen into a ditch, and died of that. One person fell asleep making bread and butter and stabbed himelf to death in the process. Sometimes somebody got hit over the head with a staff, and the cost of the staff is carefully recorded. A surprising number of people are killed by clerks. I'm always killed by clerks. (If you tweet at it, it'll reply with a death for you.) Here's my writer twitter-handle, being killed by clerks again. Why are clerks so dangerous? One of the main coroners' rolls it's using is from Oxford, students were called clerks, and the dates cover some of the worst town-vs-gown riots. You can scroll through its fascinating assortment of deaths here. And if you're in any doubt about people dying in bizarre and informative ways, that snapshot of the medieval world should cure that!

So: get your notebook ready, set a timer for ten minutes, and start writing all the ways people could die in your world or your story.

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. I'll be posting writing prompts each week, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about the course and how to book are here.


 

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Friday, 20 November 2020

Weekly writing prompt: The black hole


Black Hole

In the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course in February, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend, to carry you through the winter – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, start inventing, get your pen moving, and have fun!



This week's prompt is THE BLACK HOLE. Remember that amazing, albeit slightly blurry, photograph they put together recently of a black hole last year?

Now, imagine they manage to refine the image a whole lot more and see... something completely unexpected.

If you want to do a bit of reading to stimulate ideas, here's a helpful article about it from the BBC, with a wee black-holes-explainer at the end. And here's a slightly more in-depth article from NASA of how they got the photo, with some very cool info and explanations.

I suggest you do this as an exploratory free-write: just take the black hole as your jumping-off point and write to discover the rest, and give yourself 10 minutes to just keep writing. You might end up writing notes and a discussion with yourself about possibilities, or a bit of a story outline, or parts of a scene, or a mish-mash of all of those – let it take whatever direction you fancy, let every idea onto the page no matter how wild or ordinary, see what happens.

This prompt is on the sci-fi-ish side of the Imaginary Worlds umbrella: ideas that are from our world, but a bit in the future or taking a scientific idea a bit further. That said, you don't have to rule out mystical, metaphysical, or downright magical stuff: there is absolutely room for that in sci-fi too. Nnedi Okorafor's Book of Phoenix and Peter F Hamilton's books, both on the Imaginary Worlds course book list, draw on both beautifully. Let your imagination rampage where it will: genre labels are for later!

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. I'll be posting writing prompts each week, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about the course and how to book are here.


 

Friday, 13 November 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Larger than life


Larger than Life

In the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course in February, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend, to carry you through the winter – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, start inventing, get your pen moving, and have fun!



This week's prompt is a character creation exercise: LARGER THAN LIFE. I suggest you invent characters for this, rather than use an existing character from an ongoing story, because you'll have more freedom to exaggerate them. But if you have a character that really needs some development, and you think this would work, go for it.

Having vivid strongly developed characters is important in any genre of writing. I find it especially valuable in the imaginary-worlds genres, as we're often so absorbed in the world-building that we leave the main character as a bit of an Everyperson and other characters as sets of tropes. There are heaps of ways to develop characters so they're not banal or walking tropes; this is an especially fun one.

Your mission is to take one character trait for them, and then exaggerate it wildly, through anecdotes of the things they've done. To take a famous example - imagine your character is 'miserly'. So, a bunch of anecdotes about his miserliness:

  • He only burns a single piece of coal, even in the depth of winter!
  • He pays his workers so little that their families can't afford to eat!
  • He makes his staff work even on Christmas day!
  • He lives in a miserable old room that belonged to his dead business partner, even though he can afford a lavish place of his own!
  • He was once in love, but he was so obsessed with money that his fiancee couldn't bear it any more, and gave him an ultimatum - and he chose staying obsessed with money!
  • He's so awful that even his dead business partner comes back to haunt him to try and change his ways!

And so on... (And why yes, A Christmas Carol does count as sff – visitations from ghosts is definitely under the broad umbrella of fantasy.)

Go all out with the anecdotes, make them as wildly exaggerated and extreme as you can. It might help to imagine a bunch of gossipy people in a pub, all chiming in with their stories of "Well I heard that..."

To get your character trait, go to this random character trait generator site and pick one of the three that's generated. You might decide in advance if you want to pick a positve or negative trait; up to you. Either can be fun. Don't worry about knowing anything else about the character yet – you'll discover that as you record all those gasp-inducing anecdotes about them. Have fun with it!

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. I'll be posting writing prompts each week, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about the course and how to book are here.


 

Friday, 6 November 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Magic power backfires


ALT

In the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course in February, I'm posting a short writing prompt for each weekend, to carry you through the winter – plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, start inventing, get your pen moving, and have fun.

This week's prompt is A MAGIC POWER BACKFIRES. We're in the realm of fantasy, here – or fairy tales, tall tales, magical realism... The worlds of magic, in short.

What superpower or magical power have you always really wanted? (For me, that's breathing underwater or flying.) You're going to give someone that magic power – and then explore all the ways it backfires and all the problems it creates.

I suggest you do this as a ten-minute exercise, free-writing all the ways it goes wrong. That freewriting might include talking out loud to yourself on paper, writing snippets of dialogue or description, summarising events, dipping into storytelling whatever comes out of your pen. Enjoy it!

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. I'll be posting writing prompts each week, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about the course and how to book are here.


 

Wednesday, 29 July 2020

Creative play: folding a little book


Little folded books in tomato plants

The third creative-play video is how to make a tiny folded book out of a single piece of paper, with no stitching at all – just a magic bit of folding. These tiny books inspire all sorts of uses: writing flash fiction, a series of haiku, a week of daily doodles or tiny poems, pretty to-do lists for a particular week or as a regular reuseable reminder, and if you turn them inside out, they become a dual perspective on something, or a secret story underlying a story. These aren't part of the Creative Play workshop's optional prep, but I highly recommend them as a way to bring creative play into your days. The video shows you how to make them and the written instructions are underneath.



How to make a little folded book

Some people prefer written instructions, but for this one watching the video is going to be much easier! When my mum first taught me these, she tried to explain it to me over the phone and I nearly lost my mind with bewilderment before we had the bright idea of switching to video. So if you're struggling to follow the instructions... switch to the video above.

You'll need... an A4 piece of paper; scissors
  • fold the paper in half vertically, then open it up
  • fold the paper in half horizontally, then open it up
  • turn the paper over
  • fold the short sides into the middle fold, then open it up
  • fold the paper in half on the short middle fold and cut horizontally to the first set of folds
  • open your paper and gently tug on either side of the cut to open it like a mouth
  • as you pull, the folds you made earlier will slide into place to create a star shape with four spokes - those are your pages
  • sharpen all the creases
  • fold all the pages onto one side and press down to sharpen the creases some more

If you'd like to find out more about the Creative Play workshop and the other Summer of Writing workshops this August, you can read about them and book here. You can also subscribe to the blog for future creative and writing suggestions:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about each of the workshops and how to book are here. The first workshops start this weekend, on 1 August.

Friday, 24 July 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Semantic field


Semantic field

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend - plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with a weekend pair of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)



This week's prompt is A SEMANTIC FIELD. That's a rather fancy term for obessessing over one kind of imagery – for example, in my watery Oxford story, all the imagery is about the ships and the sea, so the storyteller says which stories are "afloat", and someone is "sunk" in love, and high standards are "fit for a captain", and so on. A story about a cook might use a ton of imagery around food and recipes, someone's stirring the pot, or giving someone else a grilling, or garnishing their outfit with a scarf, and so on.

So, step 1: pick your semantic field, ie your source of imagery. If you have a story with a very specific theme / world, you might want to choose something from that. Otherwise, pick one of the following: 🌱 sea & sailing 🌱 food and cooking 🌱 machinery 🌱 birds

Step 2: pick a situation to describe. I suggest... 🌿 a very unsuitable couple getting together (as a scene or as a general summary of their relationship) 🌿 someone trying to borrow money from their boss 🌿 someone covering up a murder

Now, you're going to describe the situation using as many images as possible from your semantic field. Go wild with this, cram them in, don't be afraid of dreadful puns (it's an exercise, not final prose), you can use existing idioms and images from our language and make your own up freely. get yourself comfy with notebook and sippables, set a timer for 10 mins (or however long you prefer), and off you go! Have fun!

This is the the last of the 5 weekly writing prompts running up to this year's online Summer of Writing workshops. This prompt links with the pair of workshops on honing your style: Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August) and Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August). Playing with a semantic field like this is a great way to explore a new style, giving yourself permission to write in fresh, unexpected ways, and not being afraid of any silliness. (We often stop ourselves doing new things because we're afraid of feeling "silly", so embracing silliness is a perfect way to try out new things.) It's also a great way to find original imagery and captivating details, both of which are part of polishing your style. You can read more about this pair of workshops and all the other ones here.

You can also see all the previous prompts here. This is the last of them for now, but there are still more posts to come on creative things to do and of course there'll be more writing prompts in the future, so if you want those, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...
  • 1. Creative Ground (Saturday 1 August): exploring the different kinds of thinking we need for creativity, process versus product driven approaches, and increasing our reservoirs of inspiration
  • 2. Creative Play (Sunday 2 August): experimenting with taking creative leaps, opening up to fresh ideas, and risk-free thinking
  • 3. Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August): creating or developing characters through exploring their voice
  • 4. Dialogue on the Page (Sunday 9 August): practical aspects of writing dialogue: its purpose in the story; common errors; attributing speech; and the descriptions and actions that go around it.
  • 5. Place is Story (Saturday 15 August): using rich locations to develop and create plot events
  • 6. Purposeful description (Sunday 16 August): writing description that serves strong narrative purposes and exploring techniques for strengthening your descriptive writing
  • 7. Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 8. Deft exposition (Sunday 23 August): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
  • 9. Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August): exploring a wide range of styles and the features of each, and experimenting with writing in different styles
  • 10. Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August): using original imagery, selecting telling details, improving word choice, spotting clichés, and pruning unnecessary words
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here.

Wednesday, 22 July 2020

Creative play: sewing a little book


Hands sewing a booklet

The second little creative-play video is how to handsew a little book – a very useful skill for whisking together a little book and another creatively soothing thing to do. I'm inviting students on the Creative Play workshop on 2 August to make a little blank book as optional prep for the workshop, and it's a lovely thing for any writer to be able to do. For the workshop, we'll be using just two sheets of paper folded over. You can use as many as you like, up to about 8 sheets of paper. (More than that gets tricky to fold and to cut through.) The video shows you how and instructions are beneath, for those who prefer that.



How to sew a little book

You will need... paper; a needle; thread; scissors.
  • Fold your paper in half, and pierce five holes along the spine, evenly spaced. (If you have a thicker stack of paper, you can push your needle's eye into a cork, to create a makeshift awl.) 
  • Measure the thread twice the length of the spine plus a bit extra for tying. 
  • Thread your needle and push through the middle hole, leaving a small length of thread sticking out for tying with later. 
  • On the outside of the spine, go up to the next hole and back through, then on the inside up to the top hole and back through. 
  • Repeat in the reverse order to go back down the booklet, to the middle, and repeat on the bottom half.
  • Finally, tie the two pieces of thread together, either with a knot or a bow. The tied bit of the book can go on the outside or the inside.

If you'd like to find out more about the Creative Play workshop and the other Summer of Writing workshops this August, you can read about them and book here. I'll be posting a few more how-to videos of small creative activities like this, as well as the weekly writing prompts, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about each of the workshops and how to book are here and the first two workshops, on creativity, are in ten days' time.

Friday, 17 July 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Urban fantasy


Urban Fantasy

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend - plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with a weekend pair of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)



This week's prompt is URBAN FANTASY. That's stories which are set pretty much in our here-and-now world, but add elements of fantasy, like magic powers, magical races, etc. (If you know Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series, Laurel K Hamilton's Anita Blake series, or Kim Harrison's Rachel Morgan series, those are all urban fantasy.

SO, step one: pick something in the urban environment that frequently catches your attention, or puzzles you. For example, lit-up bollards, road signs with double poles, shoes on top of bus stops, patterns on manholes. Then, by freewriting / talking aloud to yourself on the page, start describing it in detail and exploring a magical explanation for it, how it reveals a substrata of magical beings, powers, or forces at work, who knows about that and who doesn't... and see what emerges.

I suggest you do this as a timed exercise - I usually suggest ten minutes, because that's such a doable length of time, and we're much more likely to do something if we know it'll only take ten minutes. If you want to spend longer on it, you absolutely can, but commit to just the ten minutes first and do that.

This is the 4th of the 5 weekly writing prompts running up to this year's online Summer of Writing workshops. This prompt links with the pair of workshops on orientating the reader: Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August) and Deft Exposition (Sunday 23 August). Every genre needs exposition (explaining backstory and assorted info to the reader), but the fantasy and sci-fi genres really help us recognise the need for it, and are also brimming with examples of how to do it well, so it's a great way in. And if you're not an SFF-fan, urban fantasy is a more accessible place to play, because it's set in a world you already know, with your added-on invented bits. Urban fantasy is also a great way to think about orientating the reader as you shift between, because your story has both its magical world and its real world, and at each point you're finding cues and clues for how to let the reader know.

You can see all the previous prompts here and there's also a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...
  • 1. Creative Ground (Saturday 1 August): exploring the different kinds of thinking we need for creativity, process versus product driven approaches, and increasing our reservoirs of inspiration
  • 2. Creative Play (Sunday 2 August): experimenting with taking creative leaps, opening up to fresh ideas, and risk-free thinking
  • 3. Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August): creating or developing characters through exploring their voice
  • 4. Dialogue on the Page (Sunday 9 August): practical aspects of writing dialogue: its purpose in the story; common errors; attributing speech; and the descriptions and actions that go around it.
  • 5. Place is Story (Saturday 15 August): using rich locations to develop and create plot events
  • 6. Purposeful description (Sunday 16 August): writing description that serves strong narrative purposes and exploring techniques for strengthening your descriptive writing
  • 7. Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 8. Deft exposition (Sunday 23 August): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
  • 9. Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August): exploring a wide range of styles and the features of each, and experimenting with writing in different styles
  • 10. Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August): using original imagery, selecting telling details, improving word choice, spotting clichés, and pruning unnecessary words
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 16 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Creative play: Making "parchment"


Making parchment

The more seriously we take our writing, the more we can forget how much it relies on play – that our inventiveness has its roots in playfulness, even silliness. Taking a little time out to play can inspire us with new ideas, relax and calm us, and help us write in new ways. I can pretty much guarantee that you'll write differently on your own handmade "parchment" to how you would in your usual notebook or Word doc! For the Creative Play workshop, I'm sending my students some fun, silly, and creative things to do as optional prep, and I thought I'd share them here.

First up is making "parchment", for all your wizardly, monsastic, piratical, or historical needs. The video shows you exactly how; if you prefer written instructions, they're underneath it. And I can personally vouch for how calming it is: the ten minutes I spent making my parchment and trying it out left me feeling more relaxed than I had all week!



How to make "parchment"

You will need...
  • a teabag and hot water
  • plain white paper
  • optional seasalt flakes
  • any props that help you get into the mood (I gathered up a candle, my pirate chests, and a small orrery)

Prepare the tea "paint" by soaking the teabag in half a cup of boiling water and leaving it to cool. Once it's completely cooled, you can use the teabag as your "paintbrush" to spread the tea over the paper. Make sure you're on a surface that won't suffer from tea stains – the kitchen counter rather than a wooden table! You can get different effects by crumpling the paper before you tea-stain it (it makes the crumpled lines darker), scattering salt onto the tea-stained paper (it creates lighter patches where the salt falls), and scattering tea-leaves from the bag onto the tea-stained paper (it creates darker patches where that falls). When you've tea-stained it, put it somewhere to dry, held down with rocks / coasters / mugs to keep it from blowing away. When it's completely dried, it takes all kinds of ink well, without bleeding or scratching the pen nib. I tested it with my fountain pen, a gel pen, and a Sharpie, which all worked beautifully. And then you can discover what kinds of things you write when you're writing on your very own parchment.

If you'd like to find out more about the Creative Play workshop (Sunday 2 August) and the other Summer of Writing workshops this August, you can read about them and book here. I'll be posting a few more how-to videos of small creative activities like this, as well as the weekly writing prompts, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. Details about each of the workshops and how to book are here. The first workshops starts in just over two weeks' time, on 1 August.

Friday, 10 July 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Ghost story


Ghost story

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend - plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with a weekend pair of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)



This week's prompt is A GHOST STORY. There's one caveat, though: a distinctly unghostly setting. Think of somewhere you absolutely don't associate with ghosts and ghost stories – somewhere crowded or busy or in the middle of the day. (We might be avoiding crowds now, but think back or ahead to them being a normal, even joyous thing.) Rush hour on the tube. A busy shopping centre. A crowded pub garden on a sunny summer bank holiday. Whatever place you pick, start there, start by describing it, and let the ghost emerge as you write...

A tip: usual story-structure advice is not to start with description. That's story-structure advice, though, not story-writing advice. For the actual writing, description's often an easy place to start, to get your pen moving. Later, you can shuffle it round to start with action. (Or decide you're going to break the rule and make it work!) And once you're done, what about editing your writing down to a piece of flash fiction? That's maximum 1000 words, but you can set much smaller maximums: 500 words, 300, 50...

And finally, your Fact for the Week on the word "ghost". It used to be spelt "gost", like its pronunciation and how any reasonable person would spell it. When the first English books were being typeset, they used Flemish typesetters, who put an "h" after every "g" that started a word, ghost, ghirl, gho, etc etc, because that's how Flemish works. Of course the first book was the Bible, which included "the Holy Ghost", and if that's how the Bible spelt it, well, it had to be right! So that's why we have a pointless / ghostly H in the middle of GHOST. You're welcome.

This is the third of the 5 weekly writing prompts running up to this year's online Summer of Writing workshops. This prompt links with the pair of workshops on place: Place is Story (Saturday 15 August) and Purposeful Description (Sunday 16 August). In any genre, the setting should shape the events, create the mood, weave into the action – and that sense of place is an essential part of what makes a story memorable. Place is essential to memory. (You can read more about that here.) Ghost stories highlight that especially strongly, because the place is integral (it's where the ghost is tied to) and the mood it creates sets the whole flavour of the story. That makes it excellent practice for developing your sense of place! And why did I tell you to pick somewhere unghostly? To let you explore your sense of place, not reach for the usual tropes of graveyards / ruins / abandoned buildings / etc: to find your own unexpected sense of the uncanny.

You can see all the previous prompts here and there's also a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the blog here:

Enter your email address:


Delivered by FeedBurner

You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...
  • 1. Creative Ground (Saturday 1 August): exploring the different kinds of thinking we need for creativity, process versus product driven approaches, and increasing our reservoirs of inspiration
  • 2. Creative Play (Sunday 2 August): experimenting with taking creative leaps, opening up to fresh ideas, and risk-free thinking
  • 3. Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August): creating or developing characters through exploring their voice
  • 4. Dialogue on the Page (Sunday 9 August): practical aspects of writing dialogue: its purpose in the story; common errors; attributing speech; and the descriptions and actions that go around it.
  • 5. Place is Story (Saturday 15 August): using rich locations to develop and create plot events
  • 6. Purposeful description (Sunday 16 August): writing description that serves strong narrative purposes and exploring techniques for strengthening your descriptive writing
  • 7. Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 8. Deft exposition (Sunday 23 August): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
  • 9. Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August): exploring a wide range of styles and the features of each, and experimenting with writing in different styles
  • 10. Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August): using original imagery, selecting telling details, improving word choice, spotting clichés, and pruning unnecessary words
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 16 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Friday, 3 July 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Telling a secret


Telling a secret

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend - plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with a weekend pair of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)


This week's prompt is telling a secret. You have two characters: one of them urgently wants to tell the other one a secret, something that they really shouldn't be telling. The other character does not want to hear the secret: either they actually already know, or they just don't want to hear something they shouldn't.

Who are the characters? You've got three choices here, depending on how you prefer to work:
  • If you have a work in progress, you could use two characters you don't know so well yet, as a way of getting to know them.
  • You can use this name generator to create two characters' names. It's an especially fun one because it auto-fills random info to generate the character's names, so you also get some random titbits about them. (I got a bunch of suggestions for Shakespearean vampires)
  • You can just leap in and start writing, and find out who they are as you go along.

What's the secret? A-ha... I don't know. It's a secret. You might know. You probably don't yet. At least one of the characters definitely does. As they talk, you'll discover hints and clues – and who knows, they might even blurt it out.

As with all the Weekend Writing Prompts, I suggest you use this as a ten-minute excercise: get comfy with notebook, pen, and sippables, switch off notifications, set a timer for 10 minutes, and step into writing world! And if you need a phrase to get your pen moving, you can start with "I don't suppose..."

This is the second of the five weekly writing prompts running up to this year's online Summer of Writing workshops. This prompt links with the pair of workshops on dialogue: Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August) and Dialogue on the Page (Sounday 9 August). By giving your characters both something to discuss and a narrative tension (the tension between them and the tension of not knowing the secret yet), the dialogue immediately has strong narrative purpose. That makes it easier to write the characters' words, explore their voices, and find out more about them through that.

You can see the previous prompt here and there's also a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the blog here:

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You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...
  • 1. Creative Ground (Saturday 1 August): exploring the different kinds of thinking we need for creativity, process versus product driven approaches, and increasing our reservoirs of inspiration
  • 2. Creative Play (Sunday 2 August): experimenting with taking creative leaps, opening up to fresh ideas, and risk-free thinking
  • 3. Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August): creating or developing characters through exploring their voice
  • 4. Dialogue on the Page (Sunday 9 August): practical aspects of writing dialogue: its purpose in the story; common errors; attributing speech; and the descriptions and actions that go around it.
  • 5. Place is Story (Saturday 15 August): using rich locations to develop and create plot events
  • 6. Purposeful description (Sunday 16 August): writing description that serves strong narrative purposes and exploring techniques for strengthening your descriptive writing
  • 7. Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 8. Deft exposition (Sunday 23 August): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
  • 9. Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August): exploring a wide range of styles and the features of each, and experimenting with writing in different styles
  • 10. Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August): using original imagery, selecting telling details, improving word choice, spotting clichés, and pruning unnecessary words
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 16 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Friday, 26 June 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Title madlibs


Title Madlibs

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August, I'm posting a writing prompt each weekend - plenty of different stuff for you to play around with as a chance to experiment, get your pen moving, and have fun! Each of the prompts loosely connects with a weekend pair of the Summer of Writing workshops, and I'll explain the connection at the end of the post each time. I find it's often more useful to play with prompts first, then think about their purpose afterwards, as we're more open and uninhibited that way. (That said, if you need to understand the point of something to enjoy it, feel free to scroll down and read that first!)


This week's prompt is TITLE MADLIBS: inventing titles by replacing the words in existing titles with your own. You can do this with your own bookshelves or poetry books, of course, but to get you started I've got ten famously good titles mad-libbed for you to make up your own. And, of course, they're infinitely reusable. So, for example, "The Particular __[emotion]__ of __[food]__" could be "The Particular Weariness of Macaroni Cheese", "The Particular Confusion of Chocolate", etc etc. If you're unsure about words like noun / verb / adjective etc, I've got a wee explainer at the bottom.

Rather than just come up with one version for each, though, I want you to come up with a bunch of versions for each one. There are two ways you could do this. Option 1: spend 1 minute on each title, coming up with as many versions as you can for it in 1 minute. There are 10 of them altogether, so that'll very neatly make it a 10-minute exercise. Option 2: ignore clocks and timers, and come up with five versions for each one. Either way, though, have fun! If you suspect you might agonise over each one, go for Option 1. If timers stress you out, go for Option 2.

The Particular __[emotion]__ of __[food]__ 

The God of
__[something]__

The Unbearable __[something]__ of __[something]__

Her __[something]__ & Other __[somethngs]__

Brief Interviews with __[adjective]__  __[noun]__

I Have No __[something]__ & I Must __[verb]__

No One __[verb]__ Here More Than __[person]__

Homesick for __[adjective]__  __[noun]__

__[colour]__  __[abstract noun]__

__[adjective]__ Sky with __[noun]__

adjective: a describing word, eg happy, blue, wooden, French, etc
noun: a thing, person, or place
verb: a doing word, eg dance, laugh, obfuscate - test it by putting "to" in front, eg "to dance", "to laugh", etc
abstract noun: a concept or idea, eg happiness, love, civilisation, truth


This is the 1st of the 5 weekly writing prompts running up to this year's online Summer of Writing workshops. This prompt links with the first pair of workshops on creativity: Creative Ground (Sat 1 August) and Creative Play (Sun 2 August). One of the common obstacles to creativity is when we make the stakes too high: we consider what we're doing as very important, we tie it into our sense of self, we want to get it right – all modes of thinking that leave us scared to make mistakes, and therefore scared to take chances, and therefore scared to try something new, which is exactly what we need to do. Using a playful game like Madlibs to invent titles lowers the stakes, so we can be more adventurous in our choices – it's just a game, it doesn't matter, and so we're happy to be silly and take risks. Playfulness is always a great boost for creativity. And creating lots of something, rather than just one, is also a great way to lower the stakes: if you're writing 5, or 20, or as many as you can in a specific time frame, then it takes the pressure off any individual one.

There'll be a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the blog here:

Enter your email address:


Delivered by FeedBurner

You can also follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram to get reminders. The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...
  • 1. Creative Ground (Saturday 1 August): exploring the different kinds of thinking we need for creativity, process versus product driven approaches, and increasing our reservoirs of inspiration
  • 2. Creative Play (Sunday 2 August): experimenting with taking creative leaps, opening up to fresh ideas, and risk-free thinking
  • 3. Creating Voice (Saturday 8 August): creating or developing characters through exploring their voice
  • 4. Dialogue on the Page (Sunday 9 August): practical aspects of writing dialogue: its purpose in the story; common errors; attributing speech; and the descriptions and actions that go around it.
  • 5. Place is Story (Saturday 15 August): using rich locations to develop and create plot events
  • 6. Purposeful description (Sunday 16 August): writing description that serves strong narrative purposes and exploring techniques for strengthening your descriptive writing
  • 7. Shifting between Scenes (Saturday 22 August): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 8. Deft exposition (Sunday 23 August): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
  • 9. Exploring Styles (Saturday 29 August): exploring a wide range of styles and the features of each, and experimenting with writing in different styles
  • 10. Polishing your Style (Sunday 30 August): using original imagery, selecting telling details, improving word choice, spotting clichés, and pruning unnecessary words
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here. NB: Workshops are limited to 16 places and fill up quickly, so do book in advance if you can.

Friday, 1 May 2020

Can't bear to stop NaPoWriMo?


May Day

The first time I did NaPoWriMo, my final poem was a rondine with the refrain "I never want to stop". I took May Day off, for our usual Oxford bacchanalia of May Morning and the next day I decided that I could do another 30 days, and carry on till the end of May. Hurrah! So I did. And then June is very helpfully 30 days too, so I carried on for June. And then by the time I wanted to do July, I figured as I was into a fourth month, I could call it six months total. By November, the eighth month, I decided I may as well make it a year. But then that would mean stopping just as the next NaPoWriMo started! So let's say a year and a month... The next May, I took the whole month off, to see if all this poeming was stealing from my novel-writing and what it was like not writing a poem a day. It turns out the poems weren't stealing headspace from the novel, they're completely different animals. And not writing a poem a day sucks. It's just like a normal month, but you don't get any poems! That's awful! (I'd also entertained the notion that maybe I could "just write the good ones" –  pfffffft and hollow-laugh. Ridiculous idea. That's not how poeming works!)

I've now been writing a poem a day for 25 months (counting two months off, that May and this past Feb) and I love it. I've also learnt that it helps to have a constant stream of resources and ideas, so that you're constantly getting fresh stimulus and developing your poems in different ways. And generally I found I need both a type of poem or technique to explore and an idea of what to write about – which is why I've been providing both this past NaPoWriMo. Happily, there are heaps of resources out there, so here are the ones I've found most useful. You can bookmark this post and keep coming back for more whenever you want to top up on your poetry inspiration.

NaPoWriMo prompt websites

NaPoWriMo.net has archives of the previous seven years of their NaPoWriMo prompts – so that's a wealth to be starting with! Occasionally prompts are repeated across years, but there's always plenty of new ones as well. Sometimes I've cut and pasted all the prompts into a little booklet I can print out to carry around with me, so I can have a more off-line poetry-writing time. The off-line bit is good, though that does mean you miss out on all the links, so I switch between the two.

Poetry School ran NaPoWriMo prompts in 2017 and 2018, and have some really super prompts. Their instructions do err on the bossy negative side at times, eg saying "Don't be sentimental!" instead of "Try writing this in a practical, straightforward way" or "This is very difficult!" instead of "This is great fun to play with" etc. So do mentally edit out any frowny phrases and enjoy the prompts. You may need to register (for free) to see the prompts.

Robert Lee Brewer at the Writers' Digest has been putting up April "poem a day" challenges since 2015 and those prompts are all up and archived. I find the prompts a bit large and generic, usually (eg "water") so I tend to use these in conjunction with other prompts, if I need an extra idea of what to write about or what direction to take it in.
 

Other poetry prompt websites

A couple of websites put out regular poetry prompts. Robert Lee Brewer at the Writers' Digest does Wednesday prompts throughout the year as well as the daily April prompts. (Again, they do tend to be large generic ideas, so best used in combination with something else.) Poetry Potion does daily prompts - a bit hit-and-miss, for me, but they're putting them out every day year round, so if one doesn't work for you, there are always plenty more to scroll through!

Websites for types of poems

Poet’s Garret: A hugely comprehensive archive of forms, which you can search by national origin and the number of lines. This often has quite weak examples, but that can be heartening!

Poetry Foundation: A massive collection of very high quality poems and a good source of examples. You can search by topic, form (though those results aren’t always accurate), school/period, and region. It also has a an excellent glossary of terms.

Academy of American Poets: www.poets.org. The US equivalent of Poetry Foundation: another great source of quality examples. It lists fewer forms but explains them in more detail than the Poetry Foundation’s glossary.

My own poetry advent calendar has 16 types of poems to play with (some of which I've linked to this NaPoWriMo) and 8 of these are separately gathered up as nifty little quickies.

Random generators

Random word generator for word-association prompts. I used this to create lists of words for  word association prompts, to avoid my own bias or tastes. You can tell it how many words to give you, and specify nouns, verbs, etc. Once you have a selection of words, you can then decide to use a given number of those words in a poem (eg 5 of the 10) or write down your own associations with each word and then use your association-words in a poem.

Random question / sentence generator Set it to “question” and answer the question in your poem, or set it to “statement” and use that as the title or first line of your poem. Its questions and proclamations tend to be surreal and esoteric, which is a great starting point for a poem.

Themed calls for submissions

Lots of poetry journals have themed calls for submissions, which gives you both an idea of what to write about and a deadline. I have my favourites all saved in one bookmark folder so I can open the whole lot at a click once a month to see what the latest themes are. Here are some of the journals I've found that have regular themes:

Here Comes EveryoneIron Press (Anthologies)LitroLondon ReaderMechanic's InstituteMsLexiaNeonOxford PoetryPenteract PressPoetry ArchivePoetry in PublicPopshotShooterThe London ReaderThemaWords for the Wild

You can find lots more themed calls for submissions on Twitter: search for #submissions and the word “poetry”. (Make sure you include the word “poetry” in your search! If you don't, the results can be... startling.)

My mailing list

I also send out prompts on my mailing list – I email about once a month and each email has a batch of four writing prompts: a form / genre prompt, an exercise, a first-line prompt, and a themed call for submissions. It's a mix of fiction and poetry prompts and often individual prompts can be used for either. To get that, you can sign up here. (Note: this is a different list to the blog subscription.)






Happy May Day and happy poeming!

Thursday, 30 April 2020

NaPoWriMo Day 30: Wanted Ad


Wanted Ad

Welcome to day 30 of NaPoWriMo – the final day! And if you find you can't bear for it to end, don't worry: NaPoWriMo may be finishing, but come back tomorrow and you'll find heaps of resources and ideas to keep on poeming!

That said, I strongly suggest you take 1 May off and celebrate May Day Oxford-style. Our wonderful Daily Info has organised a virtual May Day event for us, so we can enjoy all our usual singing, morris dancing, bacchanalia, dressing up, dawn-drinking, etc! Other towns just have ordinary Classifieds Ads in the newspaper, but Oxford has the Daily Info, an absolutely beloved institution and the heartbeat of the city, run by a tiny team of enormously good-fun people. And true to form, they're making sure we don't miss out on May Day. This is Oxford's biggest party by far and the pubs are usually open from 6am, and bursting at the seams at that, so lay in some ales and some cava and the makings of a fry-up, get yourself into a green gown or green britches, weave some ivy and flowers round your head, and come party with us! It starts at 6am though that's when the choir starts singing so you'll want to be online before that. (We're usually up at 4am to get dressed up and down to Magdalen Bridge by 6am.) You can read all about it here and join the May Day Live on Daily Info Oxford's facebook page.

Today's prompt, in honour of the Daily Info, is an idea of what to write about: a Wanted Ad. Whatever you want, whatever you're hankering for right now, write an ad specifying your exact requirements, and in the magical-realist parallel world of poetry, your ad will be placed in the magical-realist parallel-world Daily Info (not the real one, mind; we can't distract them from essential May Day prep; priorities!) and will, of course no doubt be magical-realistly parallel-worldly answered. It can be a real thing that you're hankering for, or an impossible thing, or a completely non-existent thing, whatever you want.

If you're looking for inspiration, you could flick through the Daily Info's Wanted Ads, browse these vintage classifieds ads, read my examples below, and then ask yourself: "What do I really really want right now?" Then write an ad requesting it.

WANTED ADS

WANTED: point-of-view translator. Two headsets minimum; ports for extra headsets if possible. Must have full context settings, including background, previous experience, mood, and current situation (as transmittable, not emoji shortcuts). Separate empapthy and humour controls, not a single slider scale. Tone adjustor desirable. New or used. Seller must be willing to demonstrate functionality while negotiating price.

WANTED: Apologizomator 300 or above. Must replace all instances of “if” with “that”. Automatic detection and deletion of defensive explanation, self-focused emotion, and excessive self-flagellation. Built-in uncircumventable prompts for empathising and future planning. Passive-aggression detector. Remote handset to control apology length, empathising length, and listening length, for apologisee’s use. Urgently required, any price. (Asking for a friend.)

WANTED: Mood synchroniser, with settings for activity level, calm / excitement, conversation, and arousal. Must control for respective personality strengths and desire-to-please quotients. Automatic overrides for aggression and depression, non-adjustable. 9 amp boredom fuse. Two transmittors for personal use; plus room-ambience input / output broadcast capacity with option to cap arousal and sleepiness levels. Arousal cap
must be able to cope with larger groups, unlike earlier models.

For a type of poem, a wanted ad is its own form already, so I'd suggest sticking to that, and maybe giving yourself a strict word-limit for added realism. (You're paying by the word, remember!) Alternately, if you want an extra constraint to shape your thoughts and steer your words this way or that, why not try a wreathed poem? To wreathe a poem, instead of rhyming the words at the end of the line, each end-word has a rhyme somewhere in the next line. That’s it! You can combine this with any other form of poetry as well – wreathed sonnets, wreathed golden shovels, etc. You can read more about wreathed poems here. And it's very fitting, the day before our May Day celebrations, to be preparing a wreath!

Feel free to share your poems in the comments whenver you use this prompt / type it up.


Bookings for the Meddling with Poetry course have now closed. For updates on future writing courses and batches of writing prompts emailed to you, you can sign up to my mailing list. (Note: this is a different list to the blog subscription.) Add your details here:






Wednesday, 29 April 2020

NaPoWriMo Day 29: A treochair


Treochair

Welcome to the second-to-last day of NaPoWriMo! (If that thought makes you terribly sad, don't worry: on 1 May I'll post heaps of ways for you to carry on the daily poeming, if you don't want to stop.) Today's prompt is a type of poem: a treochair. This is a wild little poetry form with some unusual constraints. You can have as many stanzas as you like (or as few), and each stanza follows the same pattern:

  • three lines
  • three syllables in the first line, seven in the second, and seven in the third
  • the first and third lines rhyme

They also, traditionally, use a lot of alliteration. Here's an example, an excerpt of one of my own, though I was so busy concentrating on the rhymes and syllables that I don't think I really used much alliteration! I've put the rhyming words in bold.

Hedge woundwort
does what is says on the tin
if you remember what wort

meant, before
tins, tubes, packets of pills, when
your sole choice to staunch the gore

was to tear
a trident of leaves and crush
the red pulp against the red bare

wound, the edge
already proud (the old sense:
pulled away). Look in the hedge,

like the name
specifically, by the green,
left of the pub, where the tame

magpie mocks
the squirrels from the brambles
and the aspens wave their flocks

of wrens – though
that’s a bit long, for a name,
so you’d just say hedge, and know

where its tiers 
of purple spires grow, with leaves
like nettles, watered by beers

... and on it went! It's a lovely form to play with, and one of those that's worth just seeing where it goes, because you're so busy concentrating on all the moving parts that you don't want to also be dictating what it says.

For an idea of what to write about, I suggest a wildflower's common name. Most wildflowers have a string of common names which read like poetry themselves. The one I was writing about, Hedge woundwort, is also known as Archangel, Common Hedge Nettle, Grass Nettle, Hedge Stachys, Red Archangel, Whitespot, Wild Nettle Grass, Wood Betony. Ivy-leaved toadflax, that dainty little ivy with purple flowers you see sprouting out of brickwork, is also known as Aaron's Beard, Climbing Sailor, Coliseum Ivy, Creeping Jenny, Fleas and Lice, Kenilworth Ivy, Mother of Millions, Mother of Thousands, Oxford Ivy, Oxford Weed, Pedlar's Basket, Pennywort, Rabbit-flower, Rabbits, Thousand Flower, and Wandering Sailor! A heap of poem suggestions, there! You could write about the flower itself or just take its name as a jumping-off spot: "Pedlar's Basekt" is a fabulous title!

To choose a wildflower, the Woodland Trust has a lovely gallery of woodland wildflowers and Photographers' Resource has a gallery helpfully arranged by month. Once you have your chosen wildflower, Wild Flower Web will give you the full range of common names.

Have fun with it and feel free to share your poems in the comments whenever you use this prompt / type it up!


Bookings for the Meddling with Poetry course have now closed. For updates on future writing courses and batches of writing prompts emailed to you, you can sign up to my mailing list. (Note: this is a different list to the blog subscription.) Add your details here:






Tuesday, 28 April 2020

NaPoWriMo Day 28: Ekphrasis with Sue Wheeler


Ekphrasis: Wheeler

Welcome to Day 28 of NaPoWriMo! And don't forget, today is the last day you can book for the Meddling with Poetry course. Full details on that are here.

Today's prompt is an idea of what to write about with this stunning linoprint by Sue Wheeler. This is the last of our four ekphrasis prompts, each featuring a different local artist depicting Oxford in a different medium, and as we edge towards summer, we have this glorious depiction of the Isis complete with a college boathouse and a steamer:

Click on the image for a large version

All of Sue's work has these wonderful strong colours, bold lines mixing geometric and organic shapes, and that sense of depth, space, and joy. You can browse her complete gallery here – for Oxfordphiles, look out for her interior of the Covered Market fruit and veg stall (That's Bonners Oxford, and they're doing home delivery), her view down Turl Street with Lincoln College, and her interior of the Ashmolean Museum. She also has some wonderful landscapes of the countryside surrounding Oxford. Sue trained at the Central School of Art and Design and for the past fifteen years has specialised in printmaking. In normal times, she runs printmaking classes for all levels in her beautiful studio in the village of Radley, about three miles south of Oxford. You can see more of her workshops here and if you'd like her to let you know when they start up again, you can join her mailing list by emailing info@susanwheelerprints.co.uk.

A quick reminder about ekphrasis: it simply means "writing about art", anything from responding to the piece personally to just describing what you see. You could write in free verse or use it to explore any poem form you've had your eye on which you haven't tried yet – ekphrasis is always a useful way to explore a new form. If you'd like an idea for a type of poem, I think the bold energy and natural landscape here lends itself well to playing with kennings. Kennings are two nouns (thing-words) combined to create a new word – eg “swan-road” for river, "sky-candle" for sun, "sea-steed" for ship, and so forth.  They’re often poetic and riddling, and Old English poetry used them extensively. We actually have plenty of kennings that we still use, familiar phrases like "book-worm" or online jokes like "danger-noodle" for snake. Inventing your own kennings is an absolute delight and lends an unexpected twist to a poem.

Feel free to share your poems in the comments whenever you use this prompt / type it up, and don't forget that today's the last day to book for the Meddling with Poetry course. (Details below)


Bookings for the Meddling with Poetry course close on 28 April 2020. This ourse starts in the first week of May and you can book from anywhere in the UK. It's 8 weeks long, one evening a week, and it explores a host of different poetry forms as well as the musicality of language, poetic imagery, and other aspects of the poetic. Absolute beginners and experienced writers are equally welcome. You can read more details and book a place here. It will run online, with Zoom for class sessions and materials posted to you. After this round, it will next run in Spring 2022.


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