The Bloggery

2021: Celebrating The Writers' Greenhouse
10 YEAR anniversary!

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.


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


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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.


Thursday, 14 January 2021

CELEBRATING 10 years with a behind-the-scenes history


2021 is the TEN-YEAR anniversary of The Writers' Greenhouse and I am thrilled. I have all sorts of plans to celebrate, including a party that might have to wait a bit, and to start with, a brief behind-the-scenes history of the last ten years, in numbers...

10 joyous years ago...

I'd started planning to go freelance and teach writing courses back in 2010 and spent a long hot family holiday in Scotland pouring over my ideas for a syllabus, possible games and activities, and lesson designs – but I still ended up jumping in sooner than I'd planned. I wanted to build a buffer fund first, in my EFL teaching job, but as 2010 progressed, my endometriosis worsened. I dropped to teaching half-days, then two-hour days, and then the painkillers couldn't cover even two hours of standing upright every day. I quit my job. And now I had no choice but to make freelancing work.

I put the course outline I'd designed on a web page in my personal website and put a ten-word free ad in the Daily Info. My parents, sister, and brother in law helped Will and I carry all our stuff, and me, into our new rented house in Jericho, which had a big round table: perfect for my new course. People answered my ad, booked on the course, paid deposits. And now I really had no choice! The course was happening and I was working six-day weeks to create it alongside my editing work. The first deposits paid for the first four colours of paper. My sister bought me a laminator for my birthday (it's still going strong). I cut everything by hand until the first course fees came in and then gleefully bought a guillotine. My students asked in week 2 if they'd get feedback on their writing and I said, "Err – yes! Your first piece for feedback will be in... week 4." And so it began, on a wing and a prayer and a single web-page and a free ad for an incredibly badly named course: "The 12-week course". Because... it was 12 weeks long!

The editing was my earnings. The writing course was my passion. I knew I couldn't possibly work from home without regularly seeing people and I couldn't bear not to be teaching. It was my joy, my delight on the side, and every penny went straight back into building the business. I didn't imagine it could possibly be my sole business, so to be sitting here, 10 years later, is mind-boggling. But more on that later. First...

9 types of tea

The coffee on my courses is terrible. I admit it. It's instant, because I can't figure out an environmentally friendly, non-wasteful way to make good coffee for as many as want coffee in a short break. But hospitality is wildly important to me: I'm welcoming people into my home and I want everyone to feel at home, taken care of, treated. Hence the grapes to snack on, biscuits in breaks, arrays of condiments at lunchtime in the summer workshops, jugs full of iced mint and lemon water in the summer, chocolate stash for anyone having a hard day...

To make up for the coffee, in the first course, I proudly laid out an array of 3 teas: Yorkshire, rooibos, and peppermint. Someone asked if I had Earl Grey, so I bought that. Someone asked if I had ginger tea, so I bought that. Then came the Lapsang Souchong, the green tea, the green Rooibos tea, the decaff... actually I think there are more than that now, but those are the 9 I can name off the top of my head, and if there's anything missing that you want, just ask!

With the online courses, I do miss being able to offer those tangible treats, the chance to make someone a cuppa if they're stressed or offer a chocolate, but I make up for it as much as I can with sending candles and essential oils. And in the cupboard, there are (at least) 9 types of tea, eagerly awaiting my students' return.

8 years of the Summer of Writing

I ran a few trial one-day workshops in 2010, before I launched properly in 2011, and after that I ditched the one-day workshops and just kept on with the 12-week course. At first, that was just about my energy and stress levels. All that marketing, just for one day, and all that stress, waiting to see if I had the numbers for the workshop to run... I couldn't face it. Later, when we moved to Wolvercote, it was a practical issue. The classes are in a south-facing glass-roofed conservatory. For evenings, that's perfect, but daytimes? Even on a winter's day, one wink of sunshine and half the class would be blinded. In summer, we'd all pass out from the heat.

My partner Will, ever the creative problem-solver, came up with a plan. What if I put a bunch of weekly workshops in a row, so I was advertising all of them at once, instead of one a month, and people could do more than one? And what if we swapped the living room and the conservatory for the summer, and I could teach in the cool airy front room, and we'd spend summer evenings on the sofa in the conservatory? I wasn't sure: would my students want one-day workshops in summer? Or maybe half-days, or full weekends, or nothing? "Ask them!" he said. So I threw a form up on the website to ask, people very helpfully responded, and suddenly I was going to run 4 workshops in the summer of 2013.

Those ideas from Will shaped everything about the Summer of Writing, but most specifically the central element: Ask them. The Summer of Writing workshops gradually evolved into a full collaboration with my students: a wish-list for people to say what workshops they'd like me to create, a voting-list for which 5 workshops run each year, a times-and-dates option to see what suits people best. When the pandemic hit and I didn't know how people would want online workshops to run, the solution was easy: just ask!

7 students round a table

The courses started with 7 students around a big round table in our rented house in Jericho, plus me. When we moved, my sister gave us square table that pulled out to seat three down each side and one at each end, so again I had 7 students max. The everyone-round-a-table set-up felt warm and collaborative, at times, but had its issues. If a student regularly sat at the far end of the table from me (I wasn't yet telling people where to sit!), I couldn't offer as much one-to-one help easily. It wasn't easy to change seats, so groupings were limited to who was sitting next to each other. 8 people is too many for conversation to flow back and forth naturally and so the louder people can end up dominating, while the quieter ones don't get to speak. Four is the ideal number for a cohesive conversation, but "grouping" people who're working at the same table doesn't work so well. I got adept at discreetly rearranging seating to match personalities for different types of exercises, always making sure it looked like I was just saying numbers in order and then grouping those numbers together, but that was working around a problem, not solving it.

7 students posed another problem, too: a very strict limit on how much I could earn from the courses. It was getting exhausting running two businesses, the editing / bookcoaching and the teaching, with two sets of marketing, two sets of websites, two sets of social media profiles. As The Writers' Greenhouse grew, I wanted to spend more time on that and create a new course, but I couldn't justify it financially: it just didn't pay enough. I'd raised my course fees a little, but not too much, and baulked at raising them further. So many writing courses are wildly expensive, which rules out so many people. I wanted to keep the courses as accessible as possible, while still supporting myself, but the courses couldn't support me. It was a catch-22 I spent hour after hour, brainstorm after brainstorm, list after list, and pages of scribbled calculations on, for years.

Will the brilliant problem-solver fixed this one too. He asked how many students I'd like to teach. From teaching EFL for years, and classes of all different sizes, I knew my ideal size: 12. Big enough for a roar of energy, small enough that I can focus on everyone, and very factorisable for grouping students in multiple different ways. "But the problem is the table," I began, but Will was already wandering around the conservatory with a tape measure and a calculating look.
   "I can get 12 students in here," he said. "It would have to be three tables of four and you'd have to stand. Would that work?"
   That would be bloody ideal! We carried out half the furniture, found some folding tables to buy, he built new tops for them, and finally I could group students ideally, walk around the room to make sure everyone had equal attention, and earn enough to free up some time from editing and create a new course: Imaginary Worlds.

6 workshops from the wishlist

Once the workshops were also 12 students, I could afford to spend more time creating new workshops as well. After the first "12-week course" (Story Elements) in 2011, I ran "the follow-on course" for 5 years. (Yes, I'm incredibly bad at naming things.) This was fortnightly in three-month terms with rolling enrolment, for people who wanted support with ongoing writing projects, so I was constantly creating new materials for it every two weeks. I stopped it in 2016, when my health took a real nose-dive, but that wealth of materials and constantly discussing with my students what they wanted to cover was incredibly useful. For the first few years of the Summer of Writing, the workshops came out of those lessons, collated into themes.

With no follow-on course and more time to create materials, I started the summer wishlist: tell me what workshops you want and I'll see if I can make them. My students came up with brilliant ideas! So far, 6 workshops have come directly from the wish list: A Sense of  Place, Writing in Scenes, Hone Your Style, Beyond First Draft, Page Turners, and Publication. I can only make two new workshops a year (as a rule, it's 5 hours of creation time for 1 hour of teaching) so I'm hoping this year to make some of the other wishlist suggestions which didn't quite make the top five last year – especially Tropes and Archetypes!

5 new courses

For several years, I only ran one course: "the 12-week course" – which, after years of explaining on email that it covered "the key elements of stories", I renamed Story Elements. Once I raised the class size to 12, though, in 2017 I could create Imaginary Worlds. Creating new courses is a massive time investment but also a total joy: I love designing the syllabus and structure, researching the topics more, inventing activities and games. I couldn't wait to do it again and was hankering for something that would welcome everyone into this wonderful world of writing. So at the end of 2017, I created Starting Points, as a gleeful whistlestop tour of creative writing and creativity. I even snuck two lessons about poetry into it, Mary-Poppins style, because I know that once people have a go at poetry, they end up loving it. And when I saw how much they really did, in 2018 I set about scheming a new course.

By now, you see, I'd discovered several wonderful things. Because I was teaching different courses, the same students came back. The first lesson of each course was no longer a room full of total strangers: there were always some familiar faces. And surprisingly often, people would come to a course even if it wasn't their thing, because they wanted to do another course with me. People with no pre-existing interest in fantasy or sci-fi came on Imaginary Worlds, and ended up loving it. People who felt familiar with all kinds of creative writing came on Starting Points, and got a massive creative boost. For years, I'd been putting "poetry" on the workshop voting list and it never made the top 5. So I thought: sod it. If you won't vote for the workshop, how about a whole course on poetry?! Forget all the fear of elitism and snobbery, we are going to charge around this playground having fun with it! So in 2018 I started planning and working and advertising, and in 2019 launched Meddling with Poetry. (In case you can't tell, I was getting help with naming things by now. Mum named Starting Points and Will named Meddling with Poetry.)

For the fifth course, I wasn't sure whether to do something on fantastical fiction (magical realism, tall tales, etc) or on style, so, as usual, "Ask them!" I wrote up both descriptions, put it to the vote, and the majority voted for Writing in Style. (I named that one.) To be honest, I was disappointed. I had a lot of ideas of what to cover, but I wasn't sure it was going to be so much fun. And then suddenly I had to make it in a pandemic as well, with brain fog. I nearly cancelled it. I figured I could just refund the deposits, run one of the others, apologise; no-one would blame me, under the circumstances. But I know very well that every novel, every course, every workshop, every creative project, has that moment: "I can't do it and it can't be done." I girded my loins (that's fancy for got dressed), started creating it, the ideas started catching fire... and now, like every course I've just created, it's my favourite!

4 different painkillers

Throughout all this, the endometriosis that had booted me so brutally and abruptly into freelancing at the start hadn't gone away. My health was up and down like a yo-yo. Sometimes I'd be fine for a year, even a year and a half once. Other times, for months or even years I'd be too weak to sit at my desk and be working on a laptray on the sofa. The whole of Imaginary Worlds was designed from the sofa. At that point, I needed a wheelchair for any outing. (Wheelchairs are awesome, by the way, and all sorts of places have them just there for you to use: museums, art galleries, garden centres, IKEA, supermarkets. If you ever need a wheelchair, use one!) Anyone who's seen me teaching in person knows that I teach barefoot or in tights. I've always been more comfortable without shoes, I blame my barefoot South African upbringing, but I only got the courage to go shoeless in class when my endo was really bad. Any jolt hurt; I needed to step so lightly on the ground that eggshells wouldn't crack under me; I couldn't do that in shoes. The shoes went. Before teaching, I'd stay resting all day, doing as little as possible that might flare up the inflammation and pain, and carefully map out a painkiller schedule to cover the evening's teaching. My record was being on 4 different painkillers simultaneously.

The most extraodinary thing, though, is something that will sound very twee but any fellow teacher will recognise: the best painkiller is students. From the moment the first student walks in the door, the pain vanishes. Before, I could barely shuffle to the kitchen. Suddenly I'm gliding around the classroom. The pain had held my face pinched all day. Suddenly all my muscles have relaxed into joy. And when class is over and the sudents leave, the moment the door closes behind the final student... wham. I'm doubled over. I can no longer even stand.

For teachers who love teaching, as I do, there's a magic in it. I call it a "teaching high". It's this rush of joy, focus, laughter, peace – and, it would seem, analgesics. Happily, I haven't needed the other kind of analgesics in a while, because I've had...

3 years of perfect health

Three years! Three years of not needing painkillers, of going on walks, of cooking whenever I want, of cleaning the house, of sitting up writing in parks and pub gardens for hours on end, of lifting and carrying things, of working at a desk, of seeing something on the floor and just bending to pick it up...! Bit of a shame that one of those years I've been trapped indoors by a pandemic, but on the bright side, I'm extremely good at being stuck at home and at letting all plans be provisional, floating in the ether of possibility, and at least this time I'm well. I haven't been this well in decades! It's no coincidence that three of the five courses and all six of the new wish-list workshops were created in just three years of the ten years I've been running The Writers' Greenhouse: I've been well! And long may it last!

2 houses, 2 names

The courses started, as I said, in our rented house in Jericho, around that huge round polished table. At the end of 2012, we were lucky enough to be able to buy our first house, in Wolvercote, a hop and a skip from the green and the common, with enough little woods and canal paths and weirs to bring a heart peace. 

When I started teaching, I called my wee business "The Writers' Circle", based on that original round table, in the first house. When I realised it needed a more distinctive name, easier to Google, we'd already moved and I spent hours brainstorming, despairing, trying to dream up something that said how I wanted to teach, what I believed teaching creative writing was: a place to nurture and protect things so they could grow, but not a hot-house with its implications of hasty forcing; a warm inviting place; a peaceful place full of greenery; something practical and sensible, not elitist or esoteric... It was only after a year and a half of growing things on the conservatory windowsills, winding climbers along strings, washing terracotta pots to set out, that it finally clocked: a greenhouse. A safe place to grow, so that later you're strong enough to thrive in the outside elements. That's what I wanted to give my students. And it became The Writers' Greenhouse.

1 estatic grateful teacher

Four years ago, my brother bought us both lottery tickets with the same numbers, for a massive rollover week. He asked what I'd do if I won. I started talking about paying off mortgages, and family who needed houses, and educational trusts for cousins' children, and he cut me off.
   "Megan, not that stuff. There's so much money that you could do all of that and still have enough left to live on for the rest of your life. So after you'd done all that stuff, what would you do? How would you live?"
   I thought. Most of the stuff I want isn't things you can exactly buy. "Well, I'd write," I said.
   "You do that already."
   "Yeah, but I'd write more. I'd knock the editing stuff on the head, and have more writing time."
   "And the teaching?"
   "Oh god no, I'd keep the teaching! I love teaching! Besides, I need people!"
   After that, every writing day, I'd remind myself that I'm living my millionnaire lifestyle. This is me, as a millionnaire: bent over a sheet of fullscap, scribbling. And over the past two years, thanks to my students' support, enthusiastic recommendations, and collaboration in creating new courses and workshops, I could finally start to push the editing / book-coaching to one side. Last month, I officially took down that site and replaced it with an announcement that I was now working full-time as The Writers' Greenhouse. I am, officially, living my millionnaire dream.

At the end of each workshop and course, I send out an email with any links or info people needed, and my very effusive thanks for being such wonderful students. I do it every time and it is always, always one hundred percent sincere. Sometimes the wording is similar, because there are only so many ways one can say "thank you" without launching into poetry. (I do write effusive poems about my students as well, mind! But I don't email those out.) So much of the last ten years has been collaborative, with people generously putting forward their preferences, suggestions, and ideas, but actually every class and workshop is a collaborative experience: that group of people, those interactions, and those insights, are unique. So to everyone I've had the privilege to teach over the last ten years: a very heartfelt, actually even quite soppy,


Friday, 8 January 2021

Weekly writing prompt: A Sense Mystery

Sense Mystery

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 SENSE MYSTERY. This is a lovely way to play both with writing in all the senses and with writing to discover: you don't decide the story or situation in advance; you find out as you write. If you're doing this as a ten-minuter, set your timer first.

At the start, your character has no idea where they are. You don't know either. You're going to find out together. Your character's eyes are closed. Describe...

  • 4 things they can feel
  • 3 things they can hear
  • 2 things they can smell
  • 1 thing they can taste

As you also don't know where they are, you'll be making these up at random – just add whatever you please – though a sense of where they might be will probably gradually emerge.
At last your character opens their eyes. Now describe... 

  • 5 things they can see

If you have any time left of your ten minutes, then let them start exploring to find out more about where they are and maybe how they got there.

This is a spin on the sensory grounding exercise people use for mental health, in the order of 5-4-3-2-1. It helps us calm down by settling us in the present moment, through our bodies. That's also why it's a helpful one for writing: we live in our bodies, through our senses, so describing the sensory experience in the writing lets us live in the story. Of course you don't need to religiously go through 5-4-3-2-1 in every scene, but it's excellent practice to expand your awareness of the senses in writing. And when it comes to letting the reader live in the world you've entirely invented, the senses are absolutely essential!

If you'd like to find out more about the Imaginary Worlds course this February, you can read about it and book here. Remember that bookings close on 19 January, in just 11 days! There's one prompt still left to come, so if you want that delivered to your inbox, you can subscribe to the blog here:

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Friday, 1 January 2021

Weekly writing prompt: A List of Jobs

List: Jobs

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 JOBS. All the jobs you can think of: contemporary jobs that people have now; historical jobs like leech collectors or "nightsoil men"; craft-based jobs like farrier or blacksmith; sci-fi future jobs; imaginary jobs like "cloud-scrubber". Jobs you think sound wonderful, exciting, intriguing. Jobs you think sound baffling or dreary. For 10 minutes, write down as many jobs as you can.

That's it! That's the exercise! Often, when we're creating characters on the fly, we struggle to think of jobs for them, so spending 10 mins just exercising your thinking-of-jobs muscle (one of the lesser known muscles) is a brilliant thing to do. Inventing future and imaginary jobs can also be a great starting point to create a world and if you already have a world, discovering some of the jobs in it will greatly enrich your world-building. You can also use some of your real-world jobs to think about your world: which of those jobs would still exist? How would they be different?

If you'd like to take it further, then after the 10 mins, or on another day, pick one of the jobs that intrigues you, whether pleasantly ("museum curator", for me) or with horrified fascination ("nightsoil men", for sure.) And then spend a bit more time exploring it...

  • What do they need to know, to do their job? What do they need to be good at?
  • What do they love about their job - in general, and in the day-to-dayness of it?
  • What are the misconceptions around their job? What are the bits that would surprise people?

You can do this as freewriting, allowing a sense of the character who has that job to emerge as you go along, and that character might grow into a story, into a part of an existing story, or into a poem about them or in their voice. Completely up to you. Enjoy!

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.


Saturday, 26 December 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Ripples


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 lovely way of exploring worlds-that-might-be: RIPPLES, how one small change can ripple outwards and change the world entirely. This is a two-parter exercise; so I'm putting the timings to do 10 mins total, but if you want to do 20 or 30 mins, you can just double or triple that. So...

Part One: Brainstorm

Spend 3 mins (or 6, or 9) brainstorming all the tiny changes to the world you can think of. Future changes, like we finally get our jetpacks, we beat all diseases, we stop driving cars. Or changes to our existing world, such as, wood doesn't burn, or fences don't exist, or leaves are blue, or bees can write. Big or small, profound or silly, good or bad, just brainstorm a bunch of different changes. When you're done, choose your favourite for right now. (And don't discount the silly ones - there's gold in them thar hills...)

Part Two: The Ripples

Now, spend 7 minutes (or 14, or 21) rippling out all the implications of your idea. I like to pop the idea in a circle in the middle of the page, and then brainstorm around it all its implications: what else changes in the world, if that changes? Sometimes one change leads to another leads to another leads to another, so one of my brainstorm spokes turns into a chain extending further and further. Or you might prefer to do it vertically, your change at the top and various flow charts leading downwards. Whatever suits the way you think, ripple out the effects of your change...

Side note: I specifically said "worlds-which-might-be" rather than science fiction at the start. That's because even when we know how wide a term "science fiction" is, the term itself can still contrain our thinking and push us into thinking only ideas about physics and the future. But science is much wider than that, science fiction doesn't even have to use science, and it could be an alternate world instead of a future one. It's your world, whatever you want it to be.

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, 18 December 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Character action figures

Character Action Figures

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 CHARACTER ACTION FIGURES. Vivid distinctive characters are important in any genre and that takes on a whole extra dimension when it comes to imaginary worlds: after all, these are the genres of action figures, figurines, and cosplay! Plus their clothes, hairstyles, and accessories are all indications of a world and a culture you've invented. Personally I try to avoid describing characters through their bodies: too often, some quite nasty tropes feed into that, where weight, attractiveness, and height are used as a measure of virtue and worth. But I still want my characters to be visually identifiable, to spring to life inside the reader's mind. So one of my favourite tactics to imagine them in full distinctive glory is... to make up their action figures!

If you have existing characters: Imagine all your characters were made into action figures: what accessories would they come with? What key outfit would they wear? What makes them instantly recognisable as that character and what would be the absolute must-have accessory for them? If they're part of a group (eg captains, wizards, etc) how do you immediately tell them apart from the rest of that group?

If you don't have existing characters: go to and for each character you want to invent, pick 2-3 of the 5 random suggestions as your character's accessories. You can invent their look if you want, or pick 1-2 items of clothing from the clothes randomizer: Then from those things, invent them by brainstorming or randomising to make sense of what you've chosen.

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.


Sunday, 13 December 2020

Writerly, wordy, and silly Zoom games

If you fancy some writerly, wordy, or just plain silly games to play on Zoom with your friends and family over the holidays, here's a selection of six, starting with the most writerly, ending with the silliest!

I've learnt a lot about adapting games and working out what's fun on Zoom through adapting the writing courses for online teaching  One of the best discoveries was working out how to do pass-around games (Consequences etc) when we're not sitting around a table. I was also amazed by how joyous playing collaborative games is, on Zoom. Collaborative games are always good for a laugh, but online they have this wonderful extra thrill.

Most of the games use minimal tech stuff, just faces on screen and voices. I've found the less tech stuff we do on Zoom, the more we get the sense of human connection, so I avoid too much screensharing etc. That said, if anyone in your group is hard of hearing, definitely use a screenshare or the chatbox where I suggest that as an option: the lively babble of a group Zoom call can be tricky to separate into voices.

Elevenies (writerly)

In a nutshell: Each person writes different lines of an elevenie poem and then the group puts them together at random
The best bit:
Assembling the elevenie poems from everyone's lines and seeing the hilarious or uncannily apt results
: 2+
Ages: 7+ (depending on writing level)
Abilities: Mixed
You'll need:
Pens; plenty of strips of paper (cut an A4 sheet in half lengthways and then into strips)
Zoom tech: Just screens and voices, but you can use the chat box to assemble the final elevenies.

How to play

An elevenie poem has just eleven words total, across five lines: 

Line 1: 1 word: a noun (a thing, place or person)
Line 2: 2 words: what it does
Line 3: 3 words: where it is
Line 4: 4 words: further explanation
Line 5: 1 word: a feeling about all this 

  1. Assign each person a line. If you can't divide your group by 5, then give some people more than one line, making sure their lines aren't next to each other - eg X gets 1 and 3, Y gets 2 and 5, Z gets 4. (More ideas on how to divvy up the lines below)
  2. Each person writes three different versions for their line, each on a different strip of paper. Eg if I have line 1, I might write "baubles", "parrots", and "centaurs" each on a different strip.
  3. Each fold your strips and muddle them.
  4. Put together your first elevenie: in order, from lines 1-5, each person takes a slip from their pile at random and reads it out, to put the elevenie together. (Add it to the chatbox as well if you're using that.)
  5. Repeat for the rest of the strips of paper, so you create three elevenies.
  6. For the next round, give everyone a different line of the poem to write. 

If you have 5 players, or exact multiples of 5, you can create one elevenie at a time and then switch lines - but make sure everyone writes their line first, so the results truly are random.  Here's how I'd divide the lines for different numbers of people:

  • 2 people: 1, 3, 5; 2 & 4
  • 3 people: 1 & 3; 2 & 5; 4
  • 4 people: 1 & 5; 2; 3; 4
  • 6 people: two sets of the 3-people version
  • 7 people: one set of the 3-people version, one set of the 4-people version
  • 8 people: two sets of the 4-people version
  • and so on

 The example in the photograph was a pass-around elevenie I did with my nieces, Isabel (then 11, black pen) and Harriet (then 8, orange pen). Remember that we couldn't see what each other were writing!

Ex Libris (writerly)

In a nutshell: The reader reads out the back cover blurb of a novel, each person writes a first line for it, and then tries to guess which is the real first line. (This is a homemade / online version of the game invented by Leslie Scott and designed by Sara Finch.)
The best bit: The giggle of writing dramatic first lines and the thrill when someone thinks yours is the real one
: 4+ players (just about manageable with 3)
Ages: 10+ according to the inventors; I'd say from 13+ for the youngsters to hold their own
Abilities: Equalish
You'll need: 3+ fiction books from your shelves per player OR e-reader / online equivalent so long as you have both the back-cover blurb and the first line; pen; paper.
Zoom tech:
The chat box to private-message the reader in each round

How to play

Take it in turns to be the reader for each round.

  1. The reader reads out the back-cover blurb of a novel.
  2. Everyone invents a first line for the novel, and sends it by private message to the reader, using the chat box. The reader types out the real first line and sends it just to themself.
  3. The reader reads out all the first lines, including the real one, and everyone votes for the one they think is real. (If anyone has difficulty hearing, the reader can also cut and paste all the lines into a fresh chat message, making sure not to paste the senders' names)
  4. You get 1 point if you vote for the real first line and 1 point for each person who votes for your first line. 

Change reader for the next round, and keep playing for as long as you like, or until you reach an agreed score (eg 20), or until you run out of books!

Mad Libs (writerly)

In a nutshell: Everyone comes up with different words in specific categories then the Storyteller slots them into the gaps of a story
The best bit
: Reading the absurd or uncannily apt final story 
: 3+
Ages: 7+ (adaptable to younger kids)
Abilities: Mixed
You'll need: pen; paper; a Mad Libs blank (You can write your own or download a free printable one here)
Zoom tech: Just screens and voices, but you can use screenshare to assemble the final story

How to play

  1. The Storyteller goes around the group, telling each player a number and what kind of word to come up with - eg "Tessa, #1, an adjective. Andrew, #2, a noun." The players write down their words.
  2. The Storyteller asks the players for all their words in turn, and writes them down in the blanks. (If you're screensharing, you can screenshare the story template and type into it so they can see where their words go.)
  3. The Storyteller reads the final version aloud for everyone.

Grammar terms

Some people weren't taught grammar terms at school and/or get anxious about words like "noun", "verb", "adjective". If you're using a downloaded printable template, it'll use those grammar terms, so you can explain them or use alternative terms like this:

  • noun: a thing, person, or place. eg a spider, a rock, an aunt, a desert. (Grammar fans: that's common nouns, which is what the Mad Libs stories want). Test: can you put "the" in front of it?
  • verb: a doing word, eg to run, to dawdle, to laugh, to scribble. Test: can you put "I want to" in front of it?
  • adjective: a describing word, eg beautiful, big, square, antique, blue, Italian, wooden. Test: can you put it in the gap: the _________ pirate?

You can also avoid grammar terms by writing your own Mad Libs story.

Writing your own 

If you have some time and fancy some playful writing, this is huge fun. The easiest way is to write a very brief story (you can steal the plot of a fairytale or famous story) and then pick 2-3 words to blank out in each sentence and write what type of word they should be. You can use grammar terms as above or be more specific - eg "an animal", "a noise", "a body part", "an object", etc.

25 letters (wordy)

In a nutshell: You each have a 5-by-5 grid which you want to make words in, and each person takes it in turn choosing a letter.
The best bit
: The yeeha! when you manage to wrangle a word and the bewilderment of why on earth someone wants a J and where on earth you can put it 
: 2+
Ages: 7+
Abilities: Mixed
You'll need: Paper and pens
Zoom tech: Just screens and voices, but you can use the chat box if anyone can't hear the letters clearly

How to play

Your aim is to make 3, 4, or 5 letter words.

  1. Each draw your own 5-by-5 grid on a piece of paper.
  2. The first person chooses a letter. You each have to write it somewhere in your own grid; you can choose where.
  3. The next person chooses a letter, and so on round, each person taking a turn, until all 25 squares are filled.
  4. You get 3 points for a 3-letter word, 4 points for a 4-letter word, and 5 points for a 5-letter word. (If you have younger players, you can also have 2 points for a 2-letter word.)
  5. Words can overlap (eg JIGIN can be both "jig" and "gin") but one word can't contain another (eg MIXER can't be "mix" and "mixer")

Answers & Questions (getting silly)

In a nutshell: Players use their Mythical Mystical Telepathic Skills to divine the answers to questions that haven't been asked yet.
The best bit
: When answers uncannily match the questions - or are wildly off-piste; also, finding a book of Answers years later and puzzling over this mysterious homemade I Ching type thing. 
: 3+
Ages: Any (presuming they can speak already)
Abilities: Mixed
You'll need: Nothing, or pen and paper if you don't trust each other
Zoom tech: Just screens and voices, but you can use the chat box

How to play

  1. The first person Thinks Of A Question, but doesn't say it out loud. This can be anything from "What shall I make for dinner?" to "What is the purpose of existence?"
  2. When you've Thought Of A Question, announce this to the group and Telepathically Transmit it. You may wish to rub your temples and hum mystically to aid the process of Telepathic Transmission.
  3. When each person has Received The Question, and Divined Their Answer, they say they're ready.
  4. The Questioner announces their Question and each person tells them their Answer.
  5. The Questioner chooses the person with the best Answer, who then gets to ask the next Question.

Trust issues!

Sadly, the world of Spiritual Communication is full of ghastly charlatans who may use smoke and mirrors, or just outright lies, so depending on how much you trust the group, you can adjust how to play:

  • Maximum trust: All the Answerers genuinely will say their original Answer, no need for proof
  • Medium trust: All the Answerers have to write their answers down, so they can show it as proof. (Still, real mountebanks might have several answers written down. So...)
  • Zero trust: All the Answerers have to write their answers in the chat box and press Enter at the same time, on the count of 3, before they hear the question

We generally play on maximum trust, although one year my partner had a bunch of heartshaped notebooks left behind at the restaurant, so we used those. I found it years later and was utterly confounded by these strange notes I'd scrawled to myself! That's it in the picture, in my Box Of Odd Things. (And in case it's not abundantly clear, I don't believe in telepathic powers!)

Toy Charades (very silly)

In a nutshell: Charades, but the toys are the actors 
The best bit
: 2+
Ages: Any
Abilities: Mixed
You'll need: TOYS!
Zoom tech: Just screens and voices; if you're playing in teams, you can use the chatbox and/or breakout rooms to decide what stories the toys should enact, and the chatbox to give members of the opposite team their story titles

How to play

To narrow it down, you can decide in advance a category of things you're going to act out in charades - eg Shakespeare plays, Fairytales, Disney films, Greek myths, etc, whatever suits everyone in your group equally. Depending on people's toy collections, you might add an extra rule that toys aren't allowed to act in their own stories - so if you have an Elsa doll, she can't act out Frozen.

  1. Choosing the story:
    For just 2-3 people
    , you can each take it in turns to choose your own story for the toys to enact.
    If you have a group of 4+, you can divide into 2 teams and come up with a list of stories for the other team's toys to enact. Use the chatbox private-messaging or breakout rooms to talk in private with your team. Then private-message one person on the other team to tell them which story their toys will enact.
  2. Enacting the story:
    The person directing the toys must mute themselves, so they don't accidentally make sound-effects and Ewok noises that would give the game away. They should also try keep their face off screen: the toys are the stars here. The toys act out the story to the best of their ability while the rest of the team guesses. (Or, if you're playing with 2-3 people, while the rest of the group guesses)
  3. Timing
    For each round, set a timer for 3 minutes. If no-one guesses within 3 minutes, alas. If someone guesses, the other team must be ready to immediately send you another story for your toys to enact. (If 3 minutes is too short for your group, adjust it to whatever suits.)
  4. The winner:
    Really the winners here are the toys, the stars of the show. But if you're really committed to the whole "points mean prizes" thing, you get 1 point for each story your group guessed, and the team with the most points wins. The winning teams' toys should then perform a victory parade, possibly singing their favourite songs.

I hope you have a splendid, writerly, wordy, and frequently silly festive season and I'd love to know how your games go, to read any elevenies you create, and to see any screenshots of the toys acting.

Friday, 11 December 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Imaginary manual

Imaginary Manual

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 to write an IMAGINARY MANUAL – for a machine you wish existed, or a machine that definitely shouldn't exist, or a machine whose purpose remains wholly unclear but you give very meticulous instructions on how to operate it anyway, and maybe some troubleshooting advice to boot. You don't have to have any idea about your machine when you start writing: just launch into the manual and find out the rest as you go along. If in doubt, write it down.

If you're doing this as a quick exercise, set a timer (10 mins is good) and set about discovering your machine!

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, 4 December 2020

Weekly writing prompt: Moving landscapes


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 lovely exercise prompt, playing with words around movement. This is a two-parter, so I suggest you try not to read ahead – it's more fun that way. That said, if you don't like doing an exercise without knowing the reasons behind it, scroll down to "Why this exercise?" near the end.
I've put the timings as 5 mins on each half to make it a 10-minute exercise; if you want to do longer, you could do 10 minutes on each half.

Part One

Spend five minutes describing a physical activity and all the movements you make in it – something with lots of physical variety, so not jogging or rowing, which are both quite repetitive; think of things like dancing, swimming, climbing, playing sport, whatever you enjoy or have enjoyed in the past. Set your timer (for 5 or 10 mins, your choice) and describe the movements!

Once you're done, grab a felt-tip and underline all the lovely movement words you used – eg for me, describing dancing, that might be lunge, dip, twirl, float...

🌿 Don't
☘️ keep
🍃 reading
🌳 till
🌱 you've
🌿 done
🍀 the 
🎋 first 
🌲 half

Part Two

Now, think of your favourite view or landscape. (I'm thinking of Port Meadow, and also of the mountains around the village of Çıralı, in Turkey) If you're struggling for ideas, I have a gallery of scenery here you can pick from. Or if you have an imaginary world already, you could use one of the views or landscapes from that.

Describe the view or landscape, using all the same movement words that you used in the first half. So if my first half was dancing, and I lunged, dipped, twirled, then in Çıralı the mountain lunges into the sea, the vines twirl around the ruins, etc.

Why this exercise?

Description is a vital part of every genre of writing. In one of my workshops, we do an exercise where we highlight all the description in a double-page spread of novels of various genres and every genre is more than 40% description. So it's always important – but when part of your genre's raison d'être is imagining new worlds, it's doubly important and an absolutely core component of world-building. That doesn't mean we dump three pages of description at the start of every chapter: description always needs to interwoven and included where it matters, as part of the narrative tension. But it does mean you're going to need plenty of it (at least 40%, remember!) and it needs to be interesting to read. Developing your descriptive repertoire is one of the best things you can do for yourself as a writer and finding more energetic descriptive language is a great way to do that.

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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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:

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

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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