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2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

Saturday, 20 November 2021

Meddle with a haibun


Meddle with a haibun

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite!

In Week 4 of the course, we explore economy of language, and how better to warm up for that than a haibun? This is a melding of prose and poetry, though it's officially counted as a poetic form. It has two parts: a paragraph or several of description, then a haiku. I love it for playing with economy of language, because the intital paragraphs let you stretch your legs and explore multiple ideas and images, then the haiku condenses them.

The prose bit can be any kind of description: a character sketch, a landscape, a travel journal snippet, or even anecdotes or events from your own life. It's usually written with intense attention to imagery, a bit the way haikus are, and can be dream-like and surreal if you want. It's prose, but with the density of poetry.

The haiku at the end is beautifully explained by poets.org as "a sort of whispery and insightful postscript to the prose of the beginning of the poem". Haikus are generally known by their syllable count, 5-7-5, but you can actually use fewer syllables. (The Japanese count "on", and 17 "on" can fit less in than 17 English syllables.) The other haiku traditions can also add some useful creative constraints:

  • kiru: a ‘cutting’, a juxtaposition of two images
  • kigo: a discreet reference to the season
  • ambiguity: provoke thought rather than resolve, conclude, or explain
  • self-contained lines: generally, allowing each line to read as a self-contained fragment, not depending on run-on grammar
  • a single moment

I think of it as writing some dense free-written prose about something, then condensing it into a haiku at the end. It's tempting to make the haiku explain or conclude what's gone before, which is a very Western approach - try to avoid that, and let the haiku be its own jewel of mystery, the moment itself without the explanation. Here's the first haibun I wrote, while on holiday in Kardimili a couple years ago:

Right: rumpled glints and brief translucent curls: teal, navy, and true aquamarine, crisped with bubbling white. A wincing stretch of broken silver stretches towards its bright eye refusal beyond which lie long flat cut-outs, lavender against the yellowing-blue sky. Over all: the splash-rustle roar, and clunk of rolling stones soaking hard with salt; the flimsy heat teased by the icy breeze.

And left: rocky outcrops fold beneath the weight of green and rise, crevassed, curved, and chasmed, sharp with shadow and flanked with light, and rise, but still can’t hide the darker fiercer rise behind, slopes smoothed with distance, stabbed with the dark green stalagmites of cypresses, and up to lose their tips in white: snow or barren rock, into the clouds, where maybe Zeus still lives, and we can shake our fists at the sky with meaning – or flirt with swans. But over all, framing our view of the gods, the vines spread ragged branches and splash their early green against the sky.

Between: the painted table’s smeared with sand from the Sahara, its curls and dots as messy and bright as life, and bubbles impossibly rise through a long gold column, which throws a long shadow, long as evenings, long as leaves, and over all, this slanting sharp light.

*

Crumpled blues cut light
which mountains drink – between them,
gold is liquid.
It's a fantastic form to play with. If you want to read more about it, I highly recommend the Poets.Org article, "More than the Birds, Bees and Trees". Have fun with it!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: 26 Jan). 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.


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Saturday, 6 November 2021

Meddle with skeltonic verse


Meddle with skeltonic verse

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite!

In Week 3 of the course we use the Rondeau form to explore imagery and rhyme, including the many different types of rhyme, ways of finding rhyme, the tricks of the trade for using it, and the tricky words and pitfalls to beware of. So to warm you up for the rhyming trade, try playing with skeltonic verse.

Despite the alarming skeletal / teutonic name, skeltonic verse is actually super light. It's named after John Skelton (hence the fierce name) and is also called "tumbling verse", which suits its mood rather better. The rules are very similar:

  • short lines: 2 heavy syllables per line (the fancy term for that is "dipodic")
  • all the lines have the same rhyme but
  • you can change the rhyme whenever you want

Here's an example from the man himself, using just 2 rhymes:

Tell you I chyll,
If that ye wyll
A whyle be styll,
of a comely gyll
That dwelt on a hyll:
But she is not gryll,
For she is somewhat sage
And well worne in age;
for her visage
It would aswage
A mannes courage. 

It's a very fun form for playing with rhyme, with the added bonus that if you accidentally choose a very limited rhyme ("grass" is notorious, for those of us in the south of England) then you only have to keep it for two lines before moving on. Have fun with it!

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems or ones well out of copyright as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of contemporary examples.

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: 26 Jan). 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.


Saturday, 23 October 2021

Meddle with a treochair


Meddle with a treochair

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite!

In Week 2 of the course, we explore the Old English form and all the avenues that opens up of word play and musicality: the form is built very much around word-play (in the shape of kennings), word stress, and alliteration: a lot of alliteration! (i.e. repeating consonant sounds at the start of words.) So to get you started in playing with alliteration, allow me to introduce the treochair.

The treochair is wild little Welsh 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. Unlike the Old English form, though, they don't specify exactly how much to use, so you can use them as a warmer-exercise and just cram in as many as you can. 

Here's an example, an excerpt of the first treochair I wrote, with the alliterated letters in bold. (You can see, as it went on, that I got distracted from alliterating!)

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. I'd suggest taking it for a spin with something light and easy to write about - describing a picture, perhaps (aka "ekphrasis") or picking one of your own favourite plants / plant names and describing that. The form itself has so many moving parts that you don't want to also be dictating what the poem says, or you'll just get in tangles. Most importantly, enjoy! 

Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: 26 Jan). 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.


Saturday, 9 October 2021

Meddle with a dinggedicht


Meddle with a dinggedicht

In the run-up to the Meddling with Poetry course, I'm sharing eight lovely new poetry forms for you, one a fortnight, each one matching with one of the lessons in the course. NB: These aren't the forms in the course or the poem-a-day booklets, they're bonus ones, to whet your appetite!

In Week 1 of the course, we explore free verse – poems with no set form, shape, metre, length, or rhyme scheme – and how that lets us focus on all the other poetic features. In the poem-a-day booklets you get alongside the course, you'll discover eight more "free verse" forms. Strictly speaking, free verse has no form restrictions, but there are so many lovely types of poems which have specific features which are nothing to do with shape, metre, etc. For example, this one: the dinggedicht.

"Dinggedicht" literally means "a thing-poem" and the idea is that you intensely observe and describe a thing, aiming to give it a voice, even find its voice. You write about the thing in third person (it / he / she / they / etc) but you're imaginatively inhabiting its existence. Your thing can be anything you like: a ruler, a leaf, a supermarket trolley, a song... Something banal, something profound, something dear to you, something that happens to be in your eye-line, whatever you like. It's a strangely mystical and animist approach, to empathise so intensely with an object, and a delightful way to explore it.

In theory, you could use any rhyme scheme, rhythm, number of lines, number of syllables, etc; the only constraint is the subject matter. I suggest writing it in free verse, though, at least for your first one, to get a feel for it and to explore the possibilities of free verse.

As an example, here's the first dinggedicht I wrote, about Bach/Grounod's Ave Maria, one of the songs I've been learning in my singing lessons. (You can hear a rather better singer than me performing the song here.)

Dinggedicht for Ave Maria

It floats
between sky and roots
snared in a thousand throats which
squawk, shriek, yell,
rasp, crack, splinter into silence

It always wants to burrow and fly
deep into your lungs and above your roof:
just breathe, it begs:
breathe and float
while we gasp and fling
rouch echoes
and a shrill squeak follows
its silver dips and leaps

Like this, like this, it begs,
up where the red kite scans
into a streamlined dive
and this,
where a dry leaf twirls overhead
and this, as the censer’s smoke
slides up the pillars, past the illuminations
bright with old sun,
and this –
the released bee zooming into a dot.

Stop telling me I’m hard, it begs,
when I’m light
and clean as the high-floating kite’s sharp cry:
just breathe, just fill your lungs with sky
and follow my lead

(Note: To respect copyright, these blog posts only use my own poems as examples. On the course, I'm licensed to give my students copyright poems, so you'll see lots of others.)

Have fun writing your own dinggedicht and discovering new depths to whatever thing you choose to write about!

The next Meddling with Poetry course starts in February 2022 (booking deadline: 26 Jan). 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.


Friday, 3 September 2021

Writing Prompt: One Hundred Prompts


100 prompts

We often think that ideas are the valuable thing in writing. Writers are frequently asked "Where do you get your ideas?" Newcomers to writing are often waiting for an Idea to arrive. Newcomers to writing workshops are often nervous of sharing what they're working on, in case someone steals their idea. But the truth is, ideas aren't really all that. They're just seeds. Look around at the world right now, as all the trees and wildflowers are bursting with seeds, to get an idea of just how plentiful ideas are. The idea itself really isn't the valuable thing: it's just a starting point. What counts is what we do with it. Every time I post one of these writing prompts on the blog, I link to the same introductory article, which says pretty much that:

[Prompts] are a constant source of fresh inspiration - not so much the prompts themselves, I find, but the actual doing of them. You do the prompt because you're told to and that's the next prompt, then suddenly, in the space where pen hits paper / fingers hit keyboard, the ideas start spilling out.

We do need those prompts and starting points, though, those springboards to bounce us up and get us writing. In the Starting Points course, each of the 8 weeks introduces a category of starting points, types of ideas to get us writing. And then each week also explores the things we can do with it: a different type of creative writing, a writing skill to expand on that, a helpful maxim to hold onto, and a creative activity to keep you inspired.

In the meantime, here are one hundred prompts to get you scribbling and playing: 

Click to enlarge. You can also download the 100 prompts as a PDF here or visit the VI-friendly version here.

You could use each of the prompts individually - take just that one idea, thought, or provocation for a ten-minute spin in your notebook and see what emerges. Take one character and explore them. Take a location and describe it. Take a word, research it, and base a poem or a piece of flash fiction on it. And so on.

Alternately, if you want more constraints (Creativity loves constraints - that's one of the maxims!), you could gamify it with a pair of dice. First off, as the grid is 10 x 10, you need a ten-sided dice. If you don't have one of those lurking a drawer, here's an online one. Then you roll the dice for...

  • How many columns to use
  • Which columns to use
  • Which item in that column to use

I've just tried it, and I'm using...

  • 5 columns
  • Columns 5, 1, 9, 2, and 3 (I had to roll a bunch of extra times because I kept getting numbers I'd got before - you could always decide that means you're using that column twice!) So my columns are Word to use, Character, Stylistic choice, Location, and  Problem. Now I'll roll the dice for each one in turn to see what I get...
  • Word to use: gamboge
    Character: a charming man in his 70s who loves crocheting
    Stylistic choice: future tense
    Location: a network of caves
    Problem: unrequited love for their enemy

So my 10-minute challenge, now, is to write a about a charming man in his 70s who loves crocheting who is unrequitedly in love with his enemy, all set in a network of caves, written in future tense and somehow using the word gamboge.

Whichever way you choose to play with it, remember, the prompt is just the starting point: the bit where it comes alive, where you come alive, is when you start to write.

If you'd like to find out more about the Starting Points course this Oct–Nov, you can read about it and book here. NB: The booking deadline is 21 September, two weeks before the course starts, so I can pack and post your starter-pack goodies.


 

Friday, 27 August 2021

How to feed your creativity

When I designed the Starting Points course, I decided it was vital to include an introduction to creativity as well – not just at the outset but to run that throughout the eight-week structure. I was thinking of students who might be entirely new to creativity, who might need permission to "squander" time like that, who might not yet know how those seemingly unrelated activites feed our creativity, who might be so habituated to efficiency that they accidentally cut out of their lives the exact stuff they need for their writing. So alongside the whistlestop tour of types of creative writing, I put together a whistlestop tour of essential creative practices to give my students each week, as "Creative Activity vouchers". Actual little vouchers, on coloured card, that they could tuck in their purse or pocket.

What I didn't expect was what an amazing boost this would give me, every time I run the course. As any good teacher would, I give myself a voucher too and carry out the same activities across that week. Suddenly, my life and my creativity blossom. I thought I was pretty decent at maintaining my creative practices... but what a tonic those vouchers and that little extra commitment are!


A selection of my creative activities from a past Starting Points course

On the surface, none of the activities have anything to do with creative writing and most of them seem an indefensible use of time. (That's why I made the vouchers: to help people defend that time.) Efficiency is the enemy of creativity, though. Firstly, to be efficient, you have to be doing something you've done before. I can make a very efficient dinner if it's something I've made twenty times before. A new recipe or a new technique is going to be slow and kitchen-chaos. Doing anything new is "inefficient". Secondly, efficiency relies on routine - you know what you need to do, you rattle through the steps in the right order, you walk the route home you know, and so on. It's efficient, but after a while it becomes stultifying, even deadening, as routine slowly dessicates into a rut. And thirdly, efficiency depends on stamping out that "loose" time. Walking home? Catch up on a work podcast! In the shower? Yell your shopping list at Alexa! Waiting for a friend? Whip out your phone and clear some of those emails!

Efficiency is not a bad thing. I'm unbelievably efficient in my admin time and my hosuekeeping – so that I can spend the rest of my time more fruitfully. But you can't be creative and efficient at the same time. If I'm writing or creating a course or a workshop, the clock-watching stops. Idea-time doesn't get measured. And of course, in the inevitable creative paradox, the less "efficient" I try to be while creating and the more "inefficient" I allow my creative practice to be, the easier the ideas come, the faster the insights leap.

Even more joyfully, the same things that feed our creativity are also the things that make our lives more relaxing, more interesting, and more fun. I remembered that in the nick of time this past April. I had two weeks off, barely able to leave the house much less go on holiday anywhere, and my partner would be working the whole time. I thought, "Oh, I'll just write for two weeks," and then I pulled myself up short. I already knew I was both dog-tired and creatively starved by a long year of pandemic. So I figured, "Physician, heal-thyself" and, using what I teach in the Starting Points course, brainstormed a wildly various list of possible activities for myself, for my staycation.

On the eve of my first Staycation day, I jokingly wrote an "itinerary" on Facebook, holiday-brochure style. The next day, I found having that little plan already set out was hugely helpful. So I kept on with it, the evening before or that morning each day, while my Facebook friends indulged me and cheered me on. Here are four of my Staycation Itineraries:



I tried to make sure that each day included something outdoors and physical, something cooking-based (one of my favourite ways to relax), something new, something I hadn't done in ages, and something where my mind was left to float, whether in its own stories or into an audio drama: in short, variety. I also felt that a bit of effort was necessary. I really was tired enough that without making a plan and making an effort, I could've spent the two weeks drinking endless coffee and scrolling through my phone. But that's not rest, that's ennui. Refreshing rest does, oddly, take a bit of effort. It's the same effort, I reasoned, as when you're on actual holiday and you do bother to look up opening times, to go see that ruin, to climb the hillside to see the fires, and so on. And knowing myself, I made extra sure that I didn't overplan the days: most of the "activities" were about 20 minutes max, with plenty of time to stop for coffee in a "pretty little coffee shop" (the kitchen island). So those were my principles: variety; a bit of effort; not too strict / packed. I also had a fourth principle: I didn't map out two weeks of projects, I only planned one day's "itinerary" at a time, with that initial brainstorm to refer to.

I had a frikken brilliant time. After the two weeks, I felt completely rejuvenated and bubbly. And lots of the little activites I'd returned to hung around in the weeks and months after, continually enriching my days. Some of what I'd done was extremely useful (the gardening). Some, pretty mystifying. (The covered boxes are very pretty, and completely mystify my partner, who kept asking unhelpful questions like "What are they for?" They're still in the conservatory, very pretty, and empty.) Some of it was useful (learning to make pies) but with time pressure, would have been absolute hell. The point was giving myself the freedom to play. Sometimes playing means we're allowed to do stuff badly or we're allowed to do purposeless things. Sometimes, playing means allowing enough time: without the pressure of time bearing down, everything can feel like play.

I've returned to the subject of time repeatedly, but you don't actually need swathes of time to feed your creativity. The Creative Activity vouchers are each for one hour, for that week. That might be an hour in one chunk. It might be two half-hour sessions, or three twenty-minuters. It might be ten minutes a day each day except class day. And yet those brief sips are enough to be transformative. Within the classes, I try to allow a bit of time to think about each activity in advance – a couple minutes of brainstorming, loosely coming up with ideas rather than Assigning Tasks To The Week. A menu, not a schedule.

If you need a creative boost – if you're feeling a bit humdrum and low, if you missed out on your holidays with that rest and fresh stimulation, if you want to feel more bubbly and blossoming again – how about a Creativity Project? You can even name it, Bond-style, Operation Creativity. Set yourself a month, or eight weeks, or twelve weeks: something clearly defined, because that clear definition helps galvanise you to do it. Give yourself an hour a week, divvied up as you please and as suits your life. Brainstorm a variety of things to do, as many different things as possible. Decide what you're doing a week at a time, or a session at a time, not everything in advance, to keep that lovely element of surprise. Join forces with your writing group if you have one, to inspire and encourage each other, or report to indulgent friends, like I did with my staycation. Keep adding to the brainstorm throughout: more ideas of fun things, new things, silly things. And little by little, feel your joie de vivre bubble back up and your creativity increase.

If you want the external structure of the Starting Points course, that will give you a Creative Activity voucher each week, as well as, each week, a different type of writing, a writing skill, a starting point for ideas, and a writing maxim. It's running online with posted materials, so it's open to bookings from anywhere in the UK, and is one evening a week for 8 weeks. The full course details are here and the booking deadline is 21 September.

And whether you're freestyling your Operation Creativity or on the course, if you want an indulgent listener to cheer you on, I'm all ears! (And if you're happy to go public, the comments are open.) After all, what could be better for creative ideas than hearing all the cool little things other people are getting up to?

Thursday, 12 August 2021

The online / in-person conundrum

I have, very reluctantly, decided that all the classes should stay online for this autumn. It’s a difficult choice, because I miss seeing you all in person so much and I know some of you will be very disappointed, so I wanted to explain my thinking.

This online / in-person choice has been a constant challenge since the start of the pandemic. For the last year and a half, I’ve been trying to decide two or three months before a course what to do while the government has constantly assured us it would all be fine by summer 2020… September 2020… Christmas 2020… Every single time, I’ve made the difficult choice to err on the side of safety, against government predictions. Every time, when the course came round, it would’ve been illegal to run in person.

The Meddling with Poetry course in May–June 2020 started during lockdown. The Summer of Writing workshops 2020 were during enforced social distancing. The new Writing in Style course in Oct–Nov 2020 overlapped with the second lockdown. The Imaginary Worlds course in Feb–March 2021 ran during the third lockdown. The Story Elements course in May–July 2021 ran when indoor mixing was prohibited. But every time, it was an agonising choice because two or three months before, we were assured things would be fine by then, and I had to guess they might not be. The uncertainty, and the feeling that I’m going against other people’s optimism, has been both difficult and painful.

Two months ago, I was genuinely certain that the Starting Points course in Oct–Nov this year would run in person. (With the option of a separate online course, naturally: I’m keeping that option regardless.) I’d drawn up lists of furniture and lamps to replace, repainting, teas to restock, sprucing up the conservatory to welcome you all back in style… then the Delta variant hit. Cases rocketed up. But so have vaccines. Many of you are fully vaccinated already. I will be too, soon. Then again, some of my double-vaccinated friends have been reinfected. One very dear friend has had Long Covid for 18 months. I’ve been waking up at 6am, wrangling with what to do, reading conflicting articles, inquisiting my friends in every field on what their sector is doing... A few mornings ago, I read an article where a lead scientific advisor explained why it was impossible to predict beyond September, and I wanted to burst into tears and laughter. Of course I’m struggling to predict this! The top experts are! So how am I, a writing teacher, expecting myself to do better?

This is what I do know: the conservatory is small.

Conservatory seating 12

If you’ve come to the in-person classes, you know what it’s like. It fits 12, just, plus me standing. It’s airy and pretty and sparkly, but it’s small. Keeping doors and windows open in autumn will be freezing, windy, and wet. The tables are 1m x 1m, with four people at each directly facing each other. In the breaks, people sit together in the living room, all use the same bathroom, squeeze past each other in the kitchen making tea and coffee.

For want of more specific guidance, I looked up the current advice for employers:

Despite the removal of Covid restrictions in England, businesses still have a legal duty to manage risks to those affected by their business.

The government's Working Safely guidance still recommends that employers carry out health-and-safety risk assessments, and take reasonable steps to minimise the risks identified.

Some businesses may choose to keep some of the measures they previously had in place, such as:

    Minimising unnecessary visitors
    Ensuring social distancing
    Frequent cleaning
    Extra hand washing facilities
    One-way systems to minimise contact
    Using back-to-back or side-to-side working (rather than face-to-face)
    Staggering start/end times

 (Source: BBC.)

The bits I've underlined in yellow are just impossible for in-person classes here. I’ve explored hiring a larger space so we can distance – but by the time everyone’s far enough apart, all the interactive games, activities, and discussions, the heart of the courses, don’t work. For that, it’s actually easier to interact on screens than at a 1–2 metre distance.

Being neither an epidemiologist nor a soothsayer, I just have to choose. If I err, I’d rather err on the side of safety. Then the worst-case scenario is “Oh, we could’ve done that one in person.” I can think of worse outcomes.

As always, I’ll do everything in my power to create an equally rich experience for the online course, sending you essential oils, felt-tips, candles, packs of colourful handouts and card sets, adding in soundscapes and music for your “travel time”, ensuring there’s time for casual chat before and after classes, and so on. The last two lessons of the Starting Points course are actually already converted for online teaching – from March last year, when we abruptly hared online after the 16 March announcement. And so it comes full circle.

I wanted to share my thinking and agonising about it in detail because, as I said, I know some of you will be disappointed and so am I, and also because I’ve wrestled exactly like this over every course since April 2020.

To everyone who’s disappointed: I’m sorry. I miss you. In-person classes will resume when they can. The 10th-anniversary party will still happen, even if it’s the 11th by then. In the meantime, I look forward to seeing your lovely laughing faces at least, talking and brainstorming and playing games and scribbling, and to reading your latest writing.

Love,
Megan


Saturday, 31 July 2021

Weekly writing prompt: What's their link?


Scrabble letters: What's their link?

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August & September, 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!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is "What's Their Link?" – a lovely exercise to play with how to show the relationships between characters. In each of the scenarios below, you have two adult characters, and you want to write one line of dialogue or one action to show the relationship between them. For example, if the relationship is "They're neighbours", a line of dialogue could be "Just a heads up that we're having a family party on Saturday – it might be a bit rowdy, but we'll make sure to keep the noise down after nine." 

The six relationships to show are...

  • they live together as romantic partners
  • they're housemates
  • they're in a new relationship
  • they're parent and adult child
  • they're at uni together
  • they work together

So for each pair, write one line of dialogue or a sentence of action to show their connection.

That's it! But if you feel like playing with this a bit more, you can take it further. There are six relationships there, but only five people, not twelve:

  • A and B live together as romantic partners
  • C and E are housemates
  • C and D are in a new relationship
  • D is the parent and A is the adult child
  • B and E are at uni together
  • A and C work together

So A is in a relationship with B and they live together, and A's parent, D, is in a new relationship with C, who is A's work colleague. A's partner, B, is at university with E, who is housemates with C, A's work colleague. Whew! It'll help now to give them all names. Then once you've got your head round that (at this point I'd draw a pentagram, both to map out the relationships between all five and to cast a spell to keep it straight in my mind), you can put them all together in the same place – let's say a nice pub garden with some decent grub. They've all met everyone else before, so there's no chance of introductions, but you can have them arrive one by one, to give you some breathing space. Have fun!

This prompt links with the pair of workshops on Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Sat 4 Sep) and Deft Exposition (Sun 5 Sep). In every kind of fiction, there's always stuff you need to explain to the reader or discreetly remind them of: who people are and their relationships, the social norms, what was happening last time we were in this strand of the story, what happens if the sun blows up / the defendant swears in court / the patient is given 20cc instead of 2cc of a medicine... Whatever the info that needs explaining or reminding, you don't want to grind the story to a halt for a swathe of explanation. That's not the stuff of story and the reader generally doesn't remember those explanations anyway. Instead, everything gets woven into the texture of the story, becoming part of the action, dialogue, and description. The first workshop, Shifting Between Scenes, looks at the who/what/where/when reminders, so the reader never gets disorientated. The second, Deft Exposition, looks at how to weave backstory and info into the story. You can read more about both workshops and book your places here.

This is the last of this summer's Weekly Writing Prompts: if you missed the others, you can see the full collection, including prompts from previous summers and other courses, here.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • 1. Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Saturday 7 August): exploring different systems of personality types to create likeable characters who are fundamentally different to you
  • 2. Characters Unlike You: Tools for Change (Sunday 8 August): a range of tools to separate yourself and esnure they’re still characters you have respect and affection for
  • 3. The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Saturday 14 August): strategies and techniques for creating and plotting engaging short stories
  • 4. The Art of the Short Story: Stories on a Postcard (Sunday 15 August): extreme economy in storytelling while keeping the prose sensory and rooted in real time
  • 5. Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August): the underlying principles of gripping storytelling, to develop a story’s narrative drive, plot map, and scenes map
  • 6. Page Turners: Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August): using micro-tension to tauten every scene and paragraph, so that every page is engaging
  • 7. Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Saturday 28 August): creating thrillers, mysteries, and crime / detective fiction: the genres structured around secrets
  • 8. Unravelling Secrets: Tricksy Storytelling (Sunday 29 August): how to structure a story around its central secret, and managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings
  • 9. Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Saturday 4 September): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 10. Orientating the Reader: Deft Exposition (Sunday 5 September): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info

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.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

Weekly writing prompt: Mystery premise


Scrabble letters: Mystery premise

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August & September, 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!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is Mystery Premise: this is part genre-prompt, part list-exercise-prompt, to get you started on exploring mystery. You're going to complete the sentence "Why did she..." (or he, or they) with as many different things as you can think of. You can mix up the he / she / they / etc options, or just use "they" throughout, or get very precise and say "the protagonist". Each one is the potential starter question for a different mystery story.

For example, the two that I use to kick off the 12-prompt storytelling projects are...

You can do this as a ten-minute exercise, writing as many questions as you can think of in ten minutes, or decide you're going to write 20 and keep going until you have all twenty – up to you. At the end, read back through them and pick out the three that most kick off your imagination.

This prompt links with the pair of workshops on Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Sat 28 August) and Tricksy Storytelling (Sun 29 August). Both these workshops deal with the genres which centre around secrets: mysteries, crime / detective fiction, and thrillers. The first workshop explores how to create these: their common requirements, essential ingredients, and pitfalls to avoid. The second workshop looks at how to plot a story where what's happened is a secret: managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings. You can read more about both workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • 1. Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Saturday 7 August): exploring different systems of personality types to create likeable characters who are fundamentally different to you
  • 2. Characters Unlike You: Tools for Change (Sunday 8 August): a range of tools to separate yourself and esnure they’re still characters you have respect and affection for
  • 3. The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Saturday 14 August): strategies and techniques for creating and plotting engaging short stories
  • 4. The Art of the Short Story: Stories on a Postcard (Sunday 15 August): extreme economy in storytelling while keeping the prose sensory and rooted in real time
  • 5. Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August): the underlying principles of gripping storytelling, to develop a story’s narrative drive, plot map, and scenes map
  • 6. Page Turners: Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August): using micro-tension to tauten every scene and paragraph, so that every page is engaging
  • 7. Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Saturday 28 August): creating thrillers, mysteries, and crime / detective fiction: the genres structured around secrets
  • 8. Unravelling Secrets: Tricksy Storytelling (Sunday 29 August): how to structure a story around its central secret, and managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings
  • 9. Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Saturday 4 September): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 10. Orientating the Reader: Deft Exposition (Sunday 5 September): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info

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.

Saturday, 17 July 2021

Weekly writing prompt: Morning Routine Joy


Scrabble letters: Morning Routine Joy

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August & September, 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!)

New to weekly writing prompts? Read about them here.

This week's prompt is Morning Routine Joy. A year ago, I gave you a similar exercise around fear, so if you did that one, you're going to do the same again, but this time with JOY. Both are emotions that are surprisingly difficult to describe head-on, so you're going to go at it slant-wise. Here's the deal:

You're going to write your main (or a secondary) character going about their usual morning routine, except they are overjoyed. But the rule is that you can't mention that they're so happy, or say what they're so very thrilled about. Just write them going through their routine in a state of blinding joy.

OR

If you don't have a character to use / don't want to do that with them right now, then write about someone who runs a charity shop opening it up first thing in the morning: all the usual routines and setting up, with the same rule – they're overjoyed the whole time, but you can't mention that they're so happy or say what they're so very happy about.

This prompt links with the pair of workshops on Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August) and Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August). When we think about narrative tension, we usually think about the negative things: the disasters, fears, fights, impending doom. It's embedded in the language we use to describe it: narrative tension; central conflict. Without doubt, a story needs to have some sort of problem at its heart: it's not a story without a problem to resolve or an obstacle to the aim. But that doesn't mean all tension is negative. And if you want tension on every page, you definitely don't want a series of increasingly awful things steadily grinding your character into the mud in every paragraph! Discovering how to find the narrative tension, or narrative interest, in every moment and emotion opens up a much wider writing palette to keep your readers gripped. You can read more about both workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • 1. Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Saturday 7 August): exploring different systems of personality types to create likeable characters who are fundamentally different to you
  • 2. Characters Unlike You: Tools for Change (Sunday 8 August): a range of tools to separate yourself and esnure they’re still characters you have respect and affection for
  • 3. The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Saturday 14 August): strategies and techniques for creating and plotting engaging short stories
  • 4. The Art of the Short Story: Stories on a Postcard (Sunday 15 August): extreme economy in storytelling while keeping the prose sensory and rooted in real time
  • 5. Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August): the underlying principles of gripping storytelling, to develop a story’s narrative drive, plot map, and scenes map
  • 6. Page Turners: Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August): using micro-tension to tauten every scene and paragraph, so that every page is engaging
  • 7. Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Saturday 28 August): creating thrillers, mysteries, and crime / detective fiction: the genres structured around secrets
  • 8. Unravelling Secrets: Tricksy Storytelling (Sunday 29 August): how to structure a story around its central secret, and managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings
  • 9. Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Saturday 4 September): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 10. Orientating the Reader: Deft Exposition (Sunday 5 September): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info

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.

Saturday, 10 July 2021

Weekly writing prompt: Get Specific


Scrabble letters: Get Specific

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August & September, 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 Get Specific: Describe somewhere you like or know well, ideally sitting there. It could be a street, a favourite coffee shop or pub garden, the view from your window... The important thing is to be as specific as possible about every detail. If there's a tree, what kind is it? If there's an armchair, what style is it? If the walls are red, what precise shade are they? If there's music playing, who's the singer, what's the song, what exact sub-genre is it? If there's a smell of food, or spices, what precise flavours?

Don't be surprised if you need to look up lots of the details and end up scrolling through thesauruses and obscure web pages to find the exact names. In other kinds of writing, you usually don't want to interrupt the flow like that, but right now, that's the point of the exercise: to zoom in on those exact details. Here are some links I find especially useful for this kind of thing:

All those are on my Writers' Links page as well.

Have fun! 

This prompt links with the pair of workshops on The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Sat 14 August) and Stories on a Postcard (Sun 15 August). To bring your story to life without shovelling on the word count, specificity is one of the most useful tools: if we read "tree", that's just a green sticky-up thing; if we read "banyan", "willow", "baobab", or "mangrove", that's a world come to life in a word. And for you, as a writer, getting specific about those details enriches your imagination and creativity so much: now that it's not just a tree in your story, but a mangrove, how many more ideas does that open to you? In the first workshop, Shaping Short Stories, we'll be looking at mapping out the essential ingredients for your short story and the unity at the heart of it. In the second, Stories on a Postcard, we'll be looking at all the ways we can tell rich stories in a very few words. You can read more about both workshops and book your places here. (There are only 2 places left on each of those workshops, so move fast if you want to book!)

There's a new writing prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom of the post.

The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • 1. Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Saturday 7 August): exploring different systems of personality types to create likeable characters who are fundamentally different to you
  • 2. Characters Unlike You: Tools for Change (Sunday 8 August): a range of tools to separate yourself and esnure they’re still characters you have respect and affection for
  • 3. The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Saturday 14 August): strategies and techniques for creating and plotting engaging short stories
  • 4. The Art of the Short Story: Stories on a Postcard (Sunday 15 August): extreme economy in storytelling while keeping the prose sensory and rooted in real time
  • 5. Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August): the underlying principles of gripping storytelling, to develop a story’s narrative drive, plot map, and scenes map
  • 6. Page Turners: Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August): using micro-tension to tauten every scene and paragraph, so that every page is engaging
  • 7. Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Saturday 28 August): creating thrillers, mysteries, and crime / detective fiction: the genres structured around secrets
  • 8. Unravelling Secrets: Tricksy Storytelling (Sunday 29 August): how to structure a story around its central secret, and managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings
  • 9. Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Saturday 4 September): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 10. Orientating the Reader: Deft Exposition (Sunday 5 September): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
Read more details about the Summer of Writing workshops and book your places here.

Saturday, 3 July 2021

Weekly writing prompt: I have never...


Scrabble letters: I have never...

In the run-up to the online Summer of Writing workshops in August & September, 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 "I have never..."  This is a two-parter, so I suggest you do the first part before reading further: it's more fun to have the element of surprise. I've given the timings to make it 10 minutes overall; if you fancy spending longer on it, double those to make it 20 mins. 

Part One (3 mins)

First off, spend 3 minutes listing things you've never done – for example, broken a bone, wrestled with a shark, been to India, killed someone, drunk bubble tea, etc etc. Whatever comes to mind, small and large, profound and random, jot down as many as you can in 3 minutes.

Don't scroll past the swan till you've done Part One. The swan is guarding Part Two.



Part Two (7 mins)

Now, looking at that list, free-write a character you like, who has done everything on the list. Freewriting means you just keep writing, without stopping, whatever comes to mind: you can talk out loud to yourself on the page, write snippets of description or dialogue, start writing in their voice and then argue with yourself about whether they'd use a particular word... you just keep writing.

Your character's going to be a bit on the wild side, for sure, but it's very important that you like them! You can say where they're from, how or why they came to do those things, what they're like, where or when they live – whatever you like, whatever comes to mind in the time available.

Have fun!

This prompt links with the pair of workshops on Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Sat 7 August) and Tools for Change (Sun 8 August). Writing characters who're very much not you is always important, otherwise the entire cast in your story is an army of mini-me's, with nothing to differentiate them from each other. It also has massive benefits for you, as a writer: when your character isn't you, writing suddenly becomes a whole lot more fun. The more clear blue water you can put between you and your character, the more distinctly you can characterise them, the more of their lives you get to make up, and the more exciting the writing gets. The first workshop on Characters Unlike You uses personality typologies to understand your own traits and create likeable characters with very different traits; the second introduces an array of tools you can use to create or develop characters who're very distinct from you. You can read more about both workshops and book your places here.

There's a new prompt each week, so you can subscribe to the mailing list on the side or at the bottom fo the post.
The full list of Summer of Writing workshops is...

  • 1. Characters Unlike You: The Other Types (Saturday 7 August): exploring different systems of personality types to create likeable characters who are fundamentally different to you
  • 2. Characters Unlike You: Tools for Change (Sunday 8 August): a range of tools to separate yourself and esnure they’re still characters you have respect and affection for
  • 3. The Art of the Short Story: Shaping Short Stories (Saturday 14 August): strategies and techniques for creating and plotting engaging short stories
  • 4. The Art of the Short Story: Stories on a Postcard (Sunday 15 August): extreme economy in storytelling while keeping the prose sensory and rooted in real time
  • 5. Page Turners: Compelling Stories (Saturday 21 August): the underlying principles of gripping storytelling, to develop a story’s narrative drive, plot map, and scenes map
  • 6. Page Turners: Compelling Pages (Sunday 22 August): using micro-tension to tauten every scene and paragraph, so that every page is engaging
  • 7. Unravelling Secrets: Dramatic Secrets (Saturday 28 August): creating thrillers, mysteries, and crime / detective fiction: the genres structured around secrets
  • 8. Unravelling Secrets: Tricksy Storytelling (Sunday 29 August): how to structure a story around its central secret, and managing what you give away when, backstory, and red herrings
  • 9. Orientating the Reader: Shifting Between Scenes (Saturday 4 September): how to keep the reader oriented about who characters are, what happened last, moving in time and place, and dealing with flashbacks elegantly
  • 10. Orientating the Reader: Deft Exposition (Sunday 5 September): a range of ways to weave explanation into a story and how to deal with "heavy-duty" exposition for more complex info
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.

Tuesday, 16 February 2021

CELEBRATING 10 years with my 10 best tips for students

Over the last ten years of courses and workshops, I've found that whatever the topic, there are some tips that are useful for every class. And when a student gets back in touch years later, these are the things they say they still hold onto. These aren't the nitty-gritty writing advice on specific topics – rather, they're the simple practical tips and principles that unlock a whole new approach or resolve a problem that felt like an inevitable part of the writing landscape. I rarely teach by standing in front of the class and declaiming, but now I allow a couple extra minutes in each class for a spontaneous Preach on whichever tip will help most right then. So here, in higgledypiggledy order, are my best tips for you.

1 Get a fountain pen

Writing by hand, if that's physically possible for you, is brilliant. There's good evidence that we consistently produce more, of higher quality, writing by hand - and this is from 2009, well after you'd expect most people to be more adapted to devices. Writing by hand quickly becomes tiring though, if you're using a ballpoint. Most pens, ballpoints especially, rely on friction to pull the ink out. That means you have to press down harder and you also have to hold the pen tighter. If you've ever shaken out your hand after writing lots by hand, that's why. Fountain pens, on the other hand, don't rely on friction: you can hold the pen light as a feather, glide it across the page with the nib just touching, and still get a lovely line. Suddenly you can write by hand for hours and never cramp up.

A few tips for fountain pens:

  • You don't need to spend a lot to get a good pen with a good nib. I usually have a £20 Parker fountain pen. At the moment, I have a £10 Helix pen and it's a dream to use. Paying a lot for a fountain pen usually just means you're buying a more expensive case, not a better nib.
  • Choose a pen thickness that suits your hand size. The very narrow pens are too thin for my size-7 hands: I prefer a slightly thicker pen. You do you.
  • Stock up on your pen's ink cartridges and stash them everywhere: handbags, pockets, pencil cases, drawers. Never be without ink.
  • Don't let anyone else use your pen. The nib gradually shapes to your handwriting.
  • Don't drop your pen on its nib. That kills it. (And I'm dyspraxic, so that's why I have a £10 Helix pen these days.)

If you're left-handed, you might find that fountain pens smudge too much for you. In that case, look for a pen that doesn't need any friction - fineliners are a good option and some gel pens. To test a pen, hold it lightly between two fingers and drag it gently across the page. If it leaves a clear line, it's a good 'un.

2 Have a writing bag

This applies even if you're not leaving the house. Your writing needs a safe home to live in. Most people quickly find that they migrate about the place when they write, if not between parks and coffee shops, at least from room to room. I have a big leather satchel I found in a charity shop for £5 and beeswaxed back to loveliness, which trundles around with me – pre-2020, between my parks, pub gardens, and meadows; the last year, from room to room. Having one place where all the current writing lives helps you look after all those handwritten pages, plus any time you scribble a random idea on a receipt or an envelope, you have somewhere to put it.

One important tip: write your name and contact details on a piece of card, along with an urgent plea for the bag's return, and put it in the bag. Even if you're not leaving the house for another three months. Something about writing can turn even the most organised person into a dazy dreamy forgetful ditz, and you really want that note to already be in the bag so that when you're halfway home on the bus and the waitress finds your bag, they can phone you. (Thanks, Agne!)

3 Mess up the blank page

Often, at the start of a writing activity, I'll see half the class frozen, pens poised and unmoving above the endless perfect drifts of white that is the blank page. They're trying to work out the right way to start, the right first sentence. They're probably wording the sentence in their head and then trying to remember how it started when they get to the end. Sometimes an entire class is sitting in suspended animation, pens hovering.

At that point I get everyone's attention back, show them a blank page, and tell them to copy me, and then I scribble all across the top, as messily as possible. I get them to do the same. I usually try not to swear in class, but for this I make an exception: "Right," I'll say. "Now you've already f'ed it up, so you can't f' it up any more than it is already." And all the pens start to move.

You can mess up the blank page however you want. Tear it out and crumple it up then smooth it out again. Scribble all over it. Start with a deliberately rubbish sentence or by describing the weather. It doesn't matter how you mess it up, anything that gets your pen moving and helps you remember that you're writing a draft, not carving words in stone.

4 Stop in the middle of

... a chapter, a scene, a paragraph, even a sentence. Our natural instinct is to reach a logical stopping point (the end of a chapter, scene, paragraph) and then stop there. It feels tidy. But that backfires. The next writing session, you not only need to Start The Doing Of The Writing, but you also have to start a new sentence / paragraph / scene / chapter. These days, when we do writing exercises in class and time is up, I give everyone about a minute's notice and the ritual reminder "If you want to carry on writing this later, remember to leave yourself a half-finished sentence."

Starting The Doing Of The Writing is always a little challenge and that half-finished thing makes it so much easier. I've learnt to not even Start The Doing Of The Writing: I get my writing stuff out, put on my playlist, light my favourite writing candle (fresh grass), make a coffee, and then sit down, not to write, but to read. I reread what I wrote last time and then I come to a half-finished bit and I'm already there, pen in hand, and oh look, I'm carrying on.

Leaving something unfinished has another bonus. Unfinished things take up extra headspace, nagging at our attention, which is why for most things we want to finish the task, close the tab, complete the admin, to save that headspace. For writing, though, we want it to be lurking around in our minds, prodding us with extra ideas, interrupting a box-set binge with an important realisation that the word "brandish" would be just perfect in that scene...

5 Write badly

If you're not prepared to write badly, you're not going to write much of anything. Many people think that early in a writing career, you start off writing badly, and then as you get better, your writing improves. Nope. The finished product may improve, but learning to write badly is an essential, valuable skill that you'll return to throughout your writing life. Any time you're having a difficult word day, any time you're trying something new, any time you're not quite sure how this is going to go, you need to write badly to write anything at all. Again, if you're not prepared to write badly, you're not going to write much. So write it badly. That's fine. You can fix it later. Neil Gaiman likes to say, "I'm a terrible writer, but a very good editor." 

Many people think they have to write it well the first time, because they haven't yet learnt about or experienced the drafting process. We don't write Alice-in-Wonderland style: "Start at the beginning, carry on until the end, and then stop." That approach might work well for your first few stories or poems, but then the moment they don't just "come out right", or you're having a bad day, you're completely stymied. Your first draft is the beginning of the process: everything can be changed, reshuffled, deleted, enriched, or pruned later. Once you've taken a couple short stories or poems through the process of reworking, editing, and finessing them, you'll discover a whole new freedom in your first drafts: it's fine to write badly, because you know you really will fix it later. And in that freedom, you discover whole new worlds of exciting ways to write.

I write my first drafts a lot more badly now than I did fifteen years ago. And my final drafts are a ton better for it. I tell my students that "Perfect comes last" – not that we're not allowed to be perfectionist, or that perfectionism loses some hare-and-tortoise race, but that it's the last stage of the process.

6 If you can't think of 1, think of 20

A character name. A location. A first line. An object for a character to be holding. An ending. Any time you're struggling to come with one, come up with 20 instead. One has too much pressure: it has to be the right one, each idea gets smacked with different perfectionist criteria every time it pops its head above ground, like an unhappy game of creative whack-a-mole. If you're writing 20, the rubbish ones are free to come parading out and the good ones sneak in alongside them.

7 Creativity loves constraints

Whenever you're struggling, add constraints. We hear a lot about the need for "creative freedom", but creativity responds a lot better to constraints. If I tell you "Write a story now about anything", you'll be stuck. If I tell you, "Write a story of exactly 200 words which includes a mermaid, a bobbin, and church bells," you can get to it pretty quickly. You might be furious that I said mermaid and want to write about a merman or a merperson: great! Rebelling against a constraint is also a shaping factor.

Depending on what you're writing, you can use all sorts of things for constraints. In poetry, we have heaps of forms that act as constraints. In fiction, any of the Story Elements could be a useful constraint: decide it has to be in a weird location, or from an unexpected point of view, or can only be written with dialogue or without dialogue. Give yourself a very specific length it has to be. Try some unusual stylistic choices: all the sentences have to be very short or very long, it has to be super-casual or super-formal, this bit of the story can only be told through documents... Draw blocks on the page and write inside the blocks, draw leaves and write inside the leaves, whatever constraints you can add, do, and the writing kicks back to life.

8 Quantity not quality

Whenever I tell my students "We want quantity, not quality!" I get at least one student saying what everyone's thinking: "Err... don't you mean quality, not quantity?" Nope. The quality will come, but not by sitting there earnestly trying to produce Quality And Only Quality. This harks back both to learning to write badly and to think of 20 when you can't think of 1, but it's worth repeating as its own separate mantra. If you focus on producing quality, you will steadily clam up into increasing rigidity, tension, and inability to produce. If you focus on producing quantity, the quality will come out, along with the rubbish and the unexpected and the silly stuff and the overblown stuff, and new discoveries and better ideas. Creativity doesn't respond well to a gatekeeper standing at the edge of your mind / pen demanding of every word and idea: "IS THIS GOOD ENOUGH?!" You can decide what's good later, once it's there. The good stuff will be there. It may seem a wasteful way to write, but when you see the head of steam you can build up and the speed with which you write when you stop judging and holding yourself back, it turns out it's a lot faster – and produces much better quality.

Another mantra for this is "You're here to do it, not to judge it," which I heard from my art teacher. He followed it up with, "You can judge it in two weeks' time." I still remind myself of that, when I freeze up on a first-draft scene or a new poem. 

This applies to coming up with ideas, to poetry, to fiction, to every aspect of early drafting. You can judge it later, choose it later, and fix it later, but start with freedom, not judgement – and the way to find that freedom is "quantity not quality".

9 Set time, not goals

We're constantly told that to be successful, we should set goals. Goal-setting is an excellent way to... stymie yourself, shrivel up any shred of joy in your writing, and lessen your productivity. Setting goals for your writing is like starting a soil-salination programme for your crops: you won't see full results overnight, but in time you'll have acres of arid, lifeless soil. You might still be able to grow a few things, by hand-watering and hand-composting each one, with back-breaking labour and blood, sweat, and tears, but it won't be fun, and it won't be lush.

This might seem an extreme way to put it, but we're so brainwashed into Goals Goals Goals that it deserves a brutal metaphor. The truth is, goal-setting backfires. A lovely study at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School explored goal-focus versus process-focus on a wide range of activities, and every single time, the people who focused on goals did worse and less than the people who focused on the process. The real kicker, though, is that the goal-focus people felt really motivated, thought they were doing loads, wanged on about it and bigged it up... The process-focus people just kept on quietly moseying along, doing better and more. Remember that, when someone tells you how awesome goal-setting is and how productive and motivated they feel, having goals: they do believe that, but they're wrong about it working. (I have a separate post on this if you want to delve into it more: The joy is in the doing.) And for the record: the worst kind of writing goal you can set is word count. Lorem Ipsum can generate word count. We're clearly not after just word count.

Without goals, though, how do you protect and prioritise writing, in the face of the rest of life's demands? Set time, not goals. Carve out the time, protect it like an angel with a flaming sword, and within that time, be free. Focus on what you're doing, not what you want to have done. Fiddle about with when the time should be, how long at a time works for you, ways to protect it, but work on setting the time.

10 Join the circle of writers

The archetypal writer, we're taught, is shivering alone in a garret, working independently on their striking original masterpiece. This is nonsense. Yes, many writers are introverts, but introverted or not, we are still social animals and we flourish, our creativity flourishes, in conjunction with others. Reading the acknowledgements pages of any novel is always staggering, when you see just how many people helped, and how. Bouncing ideas off other people works better than always working alone. We can see and solve other people's creative dilemmas much more easily than our own – and in return, they can do the same for us. Having readers and feedback is motivating and keeps you going when you hit a hurdle or a dry patch. And other people can do the one thing we can never do for ourselves: tell us how our vision is coming across on the page. We always know what's meant to happen, the effect we want to create, but we can't escape our own knowledge: only other people can tell us what is happening, the effect they're experiencing. 

My sister's graphic design blog shared this wonderful quote about finding one's tribe : "I lived outside community, I lived without a tribe. I needed women to listen to my pain and honour my tears. Then I needed women to tell me it was time to dry my tears… and do something. ... I needed women to tell me to rent a silly film and laugh hysterically. I needed women to say 'Celebrate! Go shopping!' The best thing I ever did was tiptoe out of isolation and join the circle of women." It's the same with writing. We need to tiptoe out of our isolation and join the circle of writers.

I have two blogposts on writers' groups, one on running a group and one on giving and receiving feedback. The circle doesn't begin and end with a single writing group, though. That's one part of a larger community. Make friends with other writers. Swap work with them, beta-read for each other, pass on details of journals you've spotted, go to fiction conventions, support other people's readings and book launches. If you're shy and introverted, you're in good company: most writers are! These are your people!

I try to foster what links between writers I can, through the courses, and have gradually learnt to do this more explicitly: by starting a Facebook community group for everyone who's been on the courses and workshops (now moving to Slack), by encouraging classes to have WhatsApp groups and start writing groups, by including social evenings in the courses, by having Summer Drinks (which will resume when we can do things like that), and, when the world permits, we'll have a fabulous ten-year-anniversary celebration party.

Meanwhile...

Happy writing and thanks for being part of my writing community!

 

Friday, 15 January 2021

Weekly writing prompt: action scene


Action Scene

This is the final writing prompt in the run-up to the online Imaginary Worlds course this February. Bookings for the course close on 19 Jan 2021, so if you want to leap deeper into inventing or enriching your own imaginary worlds this Feb and March, book here!


This week's prompt is an ACTION SCENE. Especially if those words fill you with alarm! That doesn't mean it has to be a fight scene – it could be, but it could equally be an escape scene, a rescue scene, a chase scene, a race scene, a shootout scene, a battle scene, a sports / physical competition scene, or a heist. Basically, any high-stakes scene where the focus is on the physical events.

Most writers tend not to be pole-vaulting sword-wielding fight-fiends. In fact, most people tend not to be. So if you're writing literary fiction, or contemporary mainstream, you can probably get away with never having an action scene. But when it comes to fantasy and science fiction, that kind of wariness doesn't wash anymore. Stuff happens. Exciting, big, physical stuff happens. Even The Handmaid's Tale, that very literary dystopia, has a stunningly brutal action scene when the handmaids kill a man with their bare hands and feet in the 'particution' and an escape scene. Giving birth isn't usually on the "types of action scenes" list, but I reckon it absolutely fits the criteria. So if you've always been wary of action scenes, or tried to duck around them, now's the chance to leap in. It doesn't need to be 007 swirling around with gadgets and offing henchmen left right and centre: anything high-stakes and physical is an action scene.

The most important trick with action scenes is to add twists and new developments, so it's not just one kind of action stretched out. For example, a chase scene with two people just running after each other has no twists or developments. They both run; whoever's faster or has more stamina will eventually get away or catch up; that's it. It's boring. So what twists and new developments can we add into the mix? Do other people join the chase? Do the characters reach an icy stretch? If so, who's better at navigating ice? Is your character especially good at jumping or climbing? Are there obstacles in the way? Do they fall down a hole?

If you already have a story you're writing, have a look through it for any action scenes you can add or which you're shying away from. If you don't have a possible action scene to hand, try this. Your character's been kidnapped and tied up in an underground tunnel network. (That could be natural caves, sewers, secret nuclear bunkers, your choice.) They've just managed to untie themselves. The enemy is around, but not right there. It's time to escape.

You can do this free-writing, adding a twist or development whenever you get stuck, OR you can plan it out roughly beforehand if you prefer. To plan it, take your central action (eg running away) and add 2–4 twists or developments, each of which changes the action and mood a bit. While you're writing, glance at the plan but don't feel obliged to follow it religiously. New discoveries emerge in the writing and, after all, no battle plan survives contact with the enemy! And most importantly, as always, have fun.

If you'd like to book for the Imaginary Worlds course this February–March, there are just THREE DAYS left to book: bookings close on Tues 19 Jan. You can read more about the course and book here.


 

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