Writing Skill: Scene Bookends


Scene Bookends

In the run-up to the Story Elements course, I'm posting a trio of Writing Skills, one a week, to get you exploring the different ingredients that go into story creation: premisecharactersplacetimeplot layeringtension & stakesplot point of viewbeginningsthemes & symbolssubplotsdetail & dialogueendings.

This week's Writing Skill is SCENE BOOKENDS, to play with the middle four topics of the course: plot layering, tension & stakes, plot point of view, and beginnings. Scene Bookends are those first and last lines of scenes that drive the tension leading into the scene and create DA-DA-DAAAA! moments at the ends of scenes. What's the question that's driving the scene? What changes as a result of what happens? What does the reader hope or fear will happen next? That's what the starts and ends of your scenes should flag up, and here's how to make that happen.

For this, you need a story to work with, so you have a couple of options:

  • Grab a chapter or two of your work in progress, if you have one,
    OR
  • Pick a fairytale whose shape you know pretty well and jot down five key scenes. For example, for Cinderella: 1) Weepily cleaning while sisters plan ball, 2) Day of ball and Fairy Godmother does her thing, 3) Ball itself from arrival, 4) Fleeing at midnight, 5) The next day's true-love-by-shoe-size discovery.

Now you're going to write the first and last lines for those five scenes. Don't worry if you don't have the rest of the scene written, that's absolutely fine! You just want to make your first and last lines as dramatic as possible. You can do this completely by instinct or, if you prefer, use some of the tricks and techniques below – up to you. Sometimes it's helpful to go by instinct first, then compare with the tricks and techniques, to see what you can refine.

Tricks and techniques

If you're using a work in progress, look near the starts and ends of your scenes: what are your most dramatic lines? Could you move those up/down to bookend the scene? Could you start the scene a bit further down, with that dramatic line, and end it a bit sooner, with a dramatic line? Some writers (me included) tend to have a bit of "throat-clearing" at the starts of scenes, and carry on writing a bit longer than necessary.

For the first lines, think, What's the narrative question that's driving that scene? In the first scene of Cinderella, maybe that's Will anything nice ever happen to her? or Why are the stepsisters so awful to her? or Will she survive their brutality? Most of the time, you want the first line to flag up that question. For example,"Cinderalla edged into the kitchen, hoping the stepsisters wouldn't notice her this time." 

Alternately, you can play a little guess-who/what game with the first line: "A foreign princess approached her, dripping with diamante, more elegant than Cinderalla could ever dream of being." And then it turns out, a few lines into the scene, that she's seeing her reflection.

For the last lines, think, What's changed as a result of what's just happened? What does the reader hope or fear will happen next? You want your last line to flag that up like a giant arrow pointing to continuing the story. You have a bunch of different techniques you can draw on here:

  • cliff-hanger (end at most dramatic point) eg The clock clock strikes 12 and Cinderella's gown starts to fade into rags
  • dramatic irony (we know something the character doesn't) eg "Behind Cinderella, unseen, the clock stood at one minute to twelve."
  • false dawn: ("What could possibly go wrong!?”) eg The Fairy Godmother sending Cinderella off, confident everything will go exacty as planned 
  • near miss: (“Whew, that was close!”) eg Cinderella panicking about time as the clock chimes – no it's okay, it's only 11. If she then relaxes, that can also become more dramatic irony: as readers, we know she mustn't relax, because she'll forget the time again! We know how the story goes; she doesn't.
  • straight-up plot plan: Use the last line to set up what the character's planning to do next. eg a dirty tired Cinderella, just finished cleaning the kitchen, resolves that whatever happens, she will go to the ball.

Have fun!

Why this skill?

This Skill plunges you right into the middle four elements of stories: plot layering, tension & stakes, plot point-of-view, and beginnings. By separating out your scenes and working on the first and last lines of each, you're paying close attention to the plot purpose of that specific scene: that's part of your  plot layering,. And by creating strong narrative drama in those lines, you're highlighting the tension & stakes of each scene. 

Some of those techniques also highlight the plot point-of-view vividly: dramatic irony, for instance, can jump outside the character's point of view (us seeing the clock that Cinderalla doesn't) or can rely on the character's restricted point of view, compared to the reader's knowledge (her relaxing when it's only 11, not knowing the story because she's in it). And plot plan explicitly centers their point of view as protagonist.

These hooky lines to start and end also build the skills we need for beginnings of stories: ways to draw the reader in, before they know what the story's all about or what's going to happen.

These four are the middle four elements we explore in the Story Elements course, starting at the end of April / start of May, as live online classes OR in person in Oxford, your choice. Read more about the course and heaps of reviews, and book your place here. Bookings close on 23 April, just ten days' time.

I'll be posting another Writing Skill next week, so if you want it delivered to your inbox, you can also subscribe to the mailing list below / on the side of this post.

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Writing Skill: The Pretence


Cross Purposes

In the run-up to the Story Elements course, I'm posting a trio of Writing Skills, one a week, to get you exploring the different ingredients that go into story creation: premisecharactersplacetimeplot layeringtension & stakesplot point of viewbeginningsthemes & symbolssubplotsdetail & dialogueendings.

This week's Writing Skill is THE PRETENCE, to play with the first four topics of the course: premise, characters, place, and time. You have two characters, each of whom is pretending to be something they're not. They might be pretending they have a different job, status, class, nationality... whatever you fancy. I suggest you choose a different type of thing for each character. And both characters are trying to impress the other. For example, the CEO of a big finance company is pretending to be the janitor, to seem more practical and down to earth, and the new hire is pretending to be French, for reasons I haven't quite yet worked out, but which might emerge in the writing. NB: The reader already knows the truth about both characters, so we know they're lying, and we're giggling away and half eating our hands with the tension.

To start, spend a couple of minutes deciding what each is lying about, being reasonably specific. For example, if they're lying about their job, what's their actual job? What are they pretending is their job?

In choosing their lies, you'll also be generating the setting for the scene (the place and time). For example, with my CEO of a big finance company, I've immediately got a setting of the City of London, a towering glass building, a corporate environment, and I can keep that present day or jump back a bit in time. How about 2009, when bankers were deeply unpopular? That would give my CEO added motivation to hide their real identity!

You don't have to stick to your own lived timeline either: one of the characters could be a pyramid builder, lying about being the pharoah, or indeed the pharoah, lying about being a pyramid builder.

Once you've got your two characters through their lies, and the setting, spend the rest of the time (about 8 mins if you're doing a ten-minuter) writing their interaction. You can stick to dialogue mostly, throwing in action/description where it's relevant, as this is very much first-draft stuff. And play it for laughs!

Why this skill?

This Skill gives you a swift, nifty way in to the first four elements of stories: premise, characters, place, and time. I've given you the premise: two characters lying to each other. That's enough to start you off writing, and how you develop it is what will make it unique. Your characters are created through their lies: an unusual start to character development, but a fun one to loosen up your powers of invention, and it instantly creates character complexity. And those lies in turn give you your setting, your place and time, which immediately makes it easier to start writing and suggests new avenues of story and character possibility – such as my CEO's lie being in the context of the global economic crisis.

These four are the first four elements we explore in the Story Elements course, starting at the end of April / start of May, as live online classes OR in person in Oxford, your choice. Read more about the course and heaps of reviews, and book your place here. Bookings close 23 April.

I'll be posting more Writing Skills in the coming two weeks, so if you want them delivered to your inbox, you can also subscribe to the mailing list below / on the side of this post.

Spring Writing Food: Italian Frittata


  Spring Italian Frittata

Perfect writing food is quick (either to make or to double up another day's cooking) so it doesn't steal your wriitng time, low-carb so your writing time isn't sabotaged by sleepiness, and as much a treat as writing itself. 

In spring, I start hankering for fresher food than winter's roots, stews, soups and braised veg, but with a nip in the air, I still want something hot. Italian frittata fits the bill perfectly: flash-fried fresh salad vegetables in an open omelette, topped with cheese. It's ready in 5–10 mins from start to finish, packed with freshness, and piping hot. And unlike its Spanish cousin, no pototoes! (I love potatoes, but boy do they make me sleepy.) It's also super-flexible for whatever fresh veg and cheese you have about, and whatever herbs, chillies, or spices you fancy adding.

I got a little shy about suggesting it: it's hardly avant-garde or innovative, and I thought of another much more glamous recipe instead... But this isn't a cookery school or a place for me to show off a new recipe I've nicked; it's easy ideas to make the most of your writing time. And actually, now that it is spring, this is what I'm throwing together almost every writing day. So here you go!

Spring Frittata recipe recipeScroll on for the recipe or download it as a PDF here

To use the PDF as a scrollable on your phone, download Adobe Acrobat Reader free from Google Play or the Apple Store. When you open your PDF in the Adobe Acrobat Reader app, tap the Liquid Mode icon at the top for easy scrolling.

Italian Frittata

Serving and times

Active time: 5–10 mins
Serves: 2 (easily halved or doubled and tasty served cold. I usually make enough for 2 and have it cold or quickly reheated later in the week.)

Ingredients

  • 4 eggs, whisked
  • 2 teaspoons butter / oil
  • ½ teaspoon salt
  • 2 handfuls of vegetables (see below)
  • grated/crumbled cheese of your choice

Suggested combinations

This is what “2 handfuls of vegetables ” roughly equates to, in actual veg, plus the cheese combinations I like. Any veg that you can also eat raw does perfectly: use what you have and what you fancy. (Each suggested combo is for its own frittata, serving two.)

  • 200g spinach (it looks like masses but quickly fries down to almost nothing), optional half-onion, lemon zest, topped with blue cheese
  • 1 red pepper, 1 courgette, 1 chilli, optional half-onion, topped with cheddar
  • 1 onion, 1 pepper, chilli flakes, topped with cheddar
  • 2 courgettes, optional half an onion, topped with goats cheese
  • 1/2 cup of peas and 50-100g mangetout or asparagus tips, topped with parmesan
  • Peas and fresh herbs, topped with feta.

You could also add meats: ham, chorizo fried slowly to render it, bacon bits, etc.

Method

  • Put the grill on to pre-heat.
  • Whisk your eggs and the salt together.*
  • In a pan on the stove, heat the butter / oil and add pepper / chilli / any spices you’re using.
  • Fry your vegetables – choose your temperature and timing accordingly. I gently wilt spinach on medium heat for 2 minutes, and sear peppers and courgette on high heat for 3–4 minutes.
  • When the vegetables are almost done, turn the heat down to medium-low.
  • Pour in your whisked egg, stir briefly to mix the egg and veg, shake the pan lightly to redistribute the egg, and return to the heat.
  • While it cooks, grate or crumble your cheese over the top.
  • After 2–3 minutes, when the bottom is cooked but the top is still wet. pop it under the grill for 1–2 minutes to cook the top and melt the cheese.
  • Slice in the pan and lift out with a spatula, to serve.

Notes

  • Leftovers: Any leftovers keep well in the fridge and make a lovely cold lunch.
  • Pan sizes for doubling or halving: The recipe scales easily, but remember to scale your pan size too. If the frittata’s too thin, it won’t hold together; too thick, it’ll struggle to cook through. These are the approx pan sizes I use:
    2 eggs: 20cm pan
    4–6 eggs: 24cm pan
    6–8 eggs: 30cm pan
  • Wet vegetables: If you use  mushrooms, tomatoes, or other vegetables that hold a lot of water, fry them for longer first so they release any water and it boils off before you add the eggs. For courgettes, I sear them hot rather than let them release all their water.
  • Herbs: If you want to use any soft-leaved herbs (basil, mint, tarragon, coriander, chives, etc) chop them finely and mix them with the raw egg.

Recipe credits: Italians, generally, and Megan

* Salt in the eggs? Really? Yes: Serious Eats says so!

And if it suddenly starts snowing...

Then you might want some Winter Writing Food: Bhakti Dahl Soup, a warming, bright and fragrant lentil soup, lively with ginger and chilli.

Happy eating and happy writing!

Writing Skill: Prove It's You


Prove It's You

To launch the online GETTING ROMANTIC workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to get your pen moving and inspire you with the story possibilities of a soupรงon of romance. The workshop explores writing both new and established love, so last week's Deluded Diary played with new love, and this week we're diving into the riches of established love: Prove It's You.

For this, you need two characters who're already in a romantic relationship, whether that's months, years, or decades. You can pick two characters from your work in progress, if you have one and it has suitable characters. Otherwise, you can whisk two characters into existence with this very handy generator.

One of the characters is going to send the other a message – maybe a text from an unknown number, or an email from a new address, or a physical letter, or through a messenger, whatever suits your story or your preferences for setting and time period. But they need to prove it's them who's sending the message. That it's not a scam, a trick, a sinister ploy, etc.

So what can they say in the message, as something only the two of them would know? That someone else couldn't take a chance on making up and getting right? For example...

    “He said it’s safe to come down. And that he’s alright. And he said to tell you…” The voice sounded puzzled. “Sardines and beans?”
    She gulped. He was alive. By the seas, he was alive.

If you're using a work in progress, you can brainstorm ideas from your existing writing. Flip back through it, if you need to refresh your memory: what are the moments that are pivotal and unique to them? What unique details are in those moments? What in-jokes would only they understand? What memories would both treasure? Try to find at least five options. Don't worry if you can't find much, though: this is also an opportunity to invent it, and dramatically enrich their relationship, so if you don't have enough, skip instead to inventing it from scratch.

If you're inventing from scratch, think of your own close relationships – not necessarily romantic; it could be siblings, friends, or any longstanding warm relationship. Think of how many in-jokes and shared memories you have. Food, places, repeated sayings, specific sights; moments that were terrifying, surprising, dreadful, hilarious, dreadful but hilarious in retrospect... And look for the unique details within those. Picking thorns out of someone's head. A blow-up sofa. Saying "It's a little bit nice" and falling about laughing. Gargling a song. That's the kind of wealth you want for your characters.

To keep this a ten-minuter, spend five minutes brainstorming as many possible details as you can. You don't need the backstory here: just throw down phrases, places, sights, names of birds, anything at all. As you scribble, ideas for back stories for some of them might pop into your head. After that, for the next five minutes, pick 2–3 of the details you jotted down, whichever most appeal to you. What's the story behind that detail? What makes that such a treasured and pivotal moment between them?

Have fun, and relish the richness of discovery!

Why this Skill?

The specific details of what only each other would know are the idiosyncracies that make a fictional relationship close and unique, rather than a generic Love Interest. A genuinely close relationship will always create its own rich history, filled with these sorts of details. Making the character prove it's them is a great test for whether the relationship's invented details are standard-issue (rose petals and champagne; a sunrise; a wedding day) or unique to them. And if the story doesn't have enough of that detail yet, this is a lovely way to invent it!

The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop is two half-days on on 24–25 February 2024: live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore how to create convincing romantic relationships in any genre, which matter to the plot and to the reader. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people. Click here for more details and to book. (NB: The workshop is limited to 16 places and is already over half full, so do book asap to get a spot.)

Getting Romantic: February workshop online

Writing Skill: Deluded Diary


Deluded Diary

To launch the online GETTING ROMANTIC workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to get your pen moving and inspire you with the story possibilities of a soupcon of romance.

The giggling trembling agonising bewilderment of new love is a riotous joy to remember and write, however lurchy and nauseating it may feel at the time when you've no idea how things will play out. It's also a brilliant way to delve deep into characters, because so much of that new love is about discovering the other person, and the fascinated attention to their every whim and habit. The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop explores the story possibilities of both new and established love, so the first of your two new skills is Deluded Diary: a delightful exercise playing with new love, character, and voice.

Your character is freshly, staggeringly in love. Proper, giddy, even-the-trees-look-different love. It's completely sincere, completely heartfelt, nothing to be mocked here, though we might smile and giggle alongside them. They're writing about this in their diary, and about the person they're so dizzyingly in love with. 

All the while, though, they are completely oblivious that the other person fancies them right back, just as fiercely. We can tell, though. It's blindingly gloriously obvious, from the diary, but your character genuinely has no idea. And while we're completely sympathetic to the passionate sincerity of their love, we've got one hand clasped across our mouth to suppress the giggles that they don't realise.

So that's what you're going to do: write their diary entry! Just one entry, if you like; more, if you get enraptured in it. Give yourself ten minutes, and then if you need to get about the rest of your day, you've dipped in enough to get a sense of it; if you want to keep scribbling away, do.

For the character, you can use an existing character if you have one handy. If you'd rather grab a brand-new character, this character-cameo generator is delightful. It gives you enough info to dive straight in, without overwhelming you with detail. And of course, feel free to change any of the details it offers you. 

So choose your character or whisk one up with the generator, set a timer if you want to do it as a time-limited exercise, and start writing their diary!

Why this Skill?

Strong characterisation is essential to writing a compelling romance or romantic subthread, and through the diary, you get a two-for-one on characters. Firstly, the character writing reveals their personality, through what they say and their voice. Secondly, the description of their beloved gives some insight into the other character. Writing a diary entry also allows you as the writer to indulge in all sorts of flights of feeling: it's the character writing, not you, and they're writing for their own eyes only, so there's no need for Polished Restrained Prose – which leaves you free to explore the full range of their feelings. 

The GETTING ROMANTIC workshop is two half-days on on 24–25 February 2024: live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore how to create convincing romantic relationships in any genre, which matter to the plot and to the reader. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people. Click here for more details and to book. (NB: The workshop is limited to 16 places and is already over half full, so do book asap to get a spot.) And to make sure you don't miss the next Writing Skill, sign up to the newsletter on the side / underneath this post.

Getting Romantic: February workshop online

A Poem for Every Moment

Colour wheel compiled of nature photos

For years, I waited for poems to come to me. I'd coax their arrival with long walks; I'd catch fragments and phrases, and wait patiently for them to build. When it came to writing stories and novels, I'd long since learnt not to wait for inspiration, but I firmly believed poems were different. They were mystical, magical, elusive. If I had an evening to myself, I'd make a Special Occasion of it: light candles, put on music, pull out my notebook and pen, and Await Poems. They often didn't arrive.

It's not that I didn't take my poetry as seriously as my fiction. I took it very seriously. I spent hours editing my poems; I faithfully entered and re-entered the few I had to competitions; I attended poetry events; I painstakingly assembled a chapbook and submitted it to a few publishers; I got a paid critique from a very experienced and kind poet.

I wish I could say my poems were better for that near-religious respect and all that work, but they weren't. They were stiff and stilted. Their imagery, so painstakingly sought, was dull. While my fiction leapt from strength to strength, my poetry languished behind.

In retrospect, I was like a lonely person hungering for company while keeping myself locked indoors away from people, never so much as picking up my phone. I genuinely didn't know that I could step out, in every weather, to go and meet some poems. 

Then one year I tried the April Poem-a-Day challenge. That was the year that everything changed. Every day, I wrote a poem, regardless, and it turned out all the poems were there, waiting for me, all along. Suddenly my stiff stilted over-worked little oeuvre was swept aside by this bright new tide of lively vivid poems, bursting with surprising imagery and unexpected thoughts. I learnt to stop Taking Poems Seriously and get to know them playfully, instead, trying out new forms with doggerel, seeing what happened if I set myself a particular challenge, letting the words themselves decide where things went. And my poems vaulted in quality.

I continued writing a poem a day for 32 months. Rather than poems being tremulous fragile things that I had to create the perfect moment for, I discovered types of poems for every possible moment. Whatever I wanted to do, there was a poem for that. So here, for whatever moment you're in, is a poem that's waiting for you.

Colour wheel compiled of nature photos

Are you in love? If it’s yearning and secret, try a tanka or katauta. To go more in depth, a sonnet of any kind. (There are many kinds beyond the Shakespearean sonnet.) If it’s obsessive, lustful, or tantalising, the drumming repetitions of villanelles, pantoums, and triolets await. If it’s joyful, go wild with the repetition in a roundelay.

If you’re grieving, haiku are there to hold the frozen moments. The ghazal is ready to be added to as long as you need it.

If you want to write a poem for someone else, try a chant, a charm, an ode, or a shape poem. If you want to write about a place, a haibun, a pastoral, an Old English poem or a Pleiades all fit perfectly. If you want to tell a story, you want a ballad, a terza rima, or anything in anapest. If you’re in the mood for something funny, try common measure, Skeltonic verse, a rubliw, or monotetra – though monotetra’s also quite happy to turn creepy, if you want it to.

If you want to explore an idea that’s clearly outlined in your mind, try a list poem, a fold poem, a sonnet, a cinquain chain, or a quatern. If you just have the starting point of an idea and want to write to discover, see what you find out by writing an  Old English poem, a chain poem, a rondeau redoublรฉ, a golden shovel, a Pleiades, a terzanelle, a treochair – and if you really want to explore it in depth, a sestina.

If you have no idea what to write about or you’d rather rub chilli in your eyes than spend time with your thoughts right now, there are heaps of poems that will still let you write, which only need a word, a phrase, an artwork, or a short extract, none of which need be yours, to kick them off: ekphrasis, a coupling poem, a golden shovel, a Pleiades, an acrostic poem, a glosa, or a Venn poem.

If you’re determined to write a poem but you only have a few minutes, no problem. Dash off an elevenie, a haiku, a lai, a katauta, a nonet, a tanka, a lune, a rubliw, or a cinquain. If you want to spend hours on an absurd poetic challenge, try an acrostic wreathed sestina. (I've only written one. It nearly broke my brain.) And if you just want to write a poem about drinking wine in the evening, there’s even one for that: an anacreontic!

You don’t need to know any of these types of poems, yet. Before I started the poem-a-day practice, I could probably have listed only sonnet, villanelle, and haiku, off the top of my head. You meet them by writing them. You don’t have to wait for them: they’re there, waiting for you.

If you want to explore heaps of types of poems, in friendly supportive company, the Meddling with Poetry course is running this Feb – March, with both online and in-person options, and bookings close on 31 January. Each of the eight weekly sessions is themed around a type of poem to explore aspects of poetry: fresh language, musicality, and rhythm. Plus your bonus weekly booklets gradually assemble into a fantastic little poetry bible of 56 forms, complete with contemporary examples, which you can constantly dip back into. Find out more here.


Writerly Party Games


Writerly Party Games

Four nifty party games and after-dinner games for writers, bookworms, and word lovers, which need little to no prep, mostly suitable for a wide age range, and ranging from the playful to the deeply writerly to the very, very silly. Enjoy!

Passround Elevenies

Elevenie Elevenies are tiny poems of just eleven words in five lines, following an exact pattern:

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

This passround game uses their very exact structure to create consequences-style poems, from the uncannily meaningful to the gleefully absurd.

For example...

Parrots
hover, untidily
up down everywhere
They dream of jungles
terrified

You'll need...

๐Ÿ“œ PAPER: Strips of paper big enough for five lines of text (max four words per line) and space to fold. (A4 cut into four strips widthways is perfect)
๐Ÿ–Š️ PENS for each person.

How to Play

  • Give each person a slip of paper. 
  • Put one person in charge of reading out the instructions for each line
  • Each write a first line, then fold and pass on. 
  • Each write a second line, then fold and pass on – and so on till the end. 
  • Unfold the finished poems and each read one aloud. Feel free to do Special Poetry Voices and Dramatic Declaiming! 

๐Ÿ‘‘ Everyone wins, and what you win is a poem!

Ex Libris

Elevenie This is one for the real bookworms. In a nutshell, by turns, one person reads out the back cover blurb of a novel, they write out the real first line while everyone else makes up a first line for it, and then the reader reads them all out and everyone tries to guess which is the real first line. (This is a homespun version of the game invented by Leslie Scott and designed by Sara Finch.)

You'll need...

๐Ÿ“š BOOKS! Ideally, each person should bring 3+ books from their own shelves, so the host doesn't have the Home Shelf advantage – or if you're playing in a family, each person gets to choose 3+ books that they'll be The Reader for. (You can also use Kindle books, of course.)
๐Ÿ“œ PAPER: Strips of paper big enough to hold one sentence. They should all be the same so you can't tell whose strip is being read out.
๐Ÿ–Š️ PENS for each person.

How to Play

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

  • The reader reads out the back-cover blurb of a novel.
  • Everyone invents a first line for the novel, and writes it on a slip of paper. The reader writes out the real first line on a strip of paper.
  • The reader reads out all the first lines, including the real one, and everyone votes for the one they think is real. (Reader: make sure you can read everyone's handwriting, so you don't stumble while you read them out!)
  • 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. 

๐Ÿ‘‘ The winner is whoever has the most points at the end

25 Letters

Elevenie 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 bits are 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.

You'll need...

๐Ÿ“œ PAPER, any kind big enough to draw a 5-by-5 grid on
๐Ÿ–Š️ PENS for each person
๐Ÿ•ต️ Some way to stop each other seeing your own grids – something to press on so you can write on your laps, or open books to stand up in front of your grid, or just jealously guard it from view with your other hand

How to Play

๐Ÿน Your aim is to make 3, 4, or 5 letter words.

  • Each draw your own 5-by-5 grid on a piece of paper.
  • The first person chooses a letter. You each have to write it somewhere in your own grid; you can choose where.
  • The next person chooses a letter, and so on round, each person taking a turn, until all 25 squares are filled.
  • 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.)
  • 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")

๐Ÿ‘‘ The winner is whoever has the most points at the end

Answers and Questions

Elevenie Definitely one for the silly part of the evening! In a nutshell, players use their Mythical Mystical Telepathic Skills to divine the answers to questions that haven't been asked yet. The best bits are 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.

You'll need...

๐Ÿคท  Nothing, or if you don't fully trust each other, ๐Ÿ–Š️๐Ÿ“œ pens and paper

How to Play

  • 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?" 
  • When you've Thought Of A Question, announce this to the group, but NOT the actual question: Telepathically Transmit The Question. You may wish to rub your temples and hum mystically to aid the process of Telepathic Transmission. 
  • When each person has Received The Question, and Divined Their Answer, they say they're ready. 
  • The Questioner announces their Question and each person tells them their Answer. 
  • 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 outright lies, so depending on how much you trust the group, you can adjust how to play:

๐Ÿ˜  Maximum trust: All the Answerers genuinely will say their original Answer, no need for proof
๐Ÿคจ  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...)
๐Ÿ˜ˆ  Zero trust: All the Answerers have to write their Answers down and pass them over, and the Questioner announces the question before looking at any of the Answers.

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! (And in case it's not abundantly clear, I don't believe in telepathic powers!)

Have a wonderful festive season, everyone!

Winter Writing Food: Bhakti dhal soup

"Carve out your writing time and defend it like an angel with a flaming sword," I say again and again. Most of us are carving out writing time from the crannies of an already busy life and the hacks for doing that are often simple, practical things. Like a shower after work, to reset your mind and reenergise you. Or having food already sorted, to win that extra time. In my personal life, I'm the queen of recipe sharing (I don't think my Facebook friends know I do anything besides cook) so I thought I'd share a recipe here, each season, of handy writing food. 

The perfect writing-food recipe has two criteria:

  • Time-saving: incredibly quick to make or very easy to make a double batch of and freeze for your writing time. That's carving out the time.
  • Low carb: I'm a big fan of carbs, but there's nothing like a sandwich to pole-axe my afternoon or evening's writing with yawns. Carbs = sleepy, so low carbs is defending the time.

And, it should go without saying, delicious: a treat to eat, just as writing time is a treat to have. Economical is also a major plus-point: if you can work less, you can write more. If you want to drop to a four-day week, to write more, you want perfect writing food that matches that.

With those criteria, absolutely brainstorm what's in your repertoire already: we start from where we are. That said, winter writing food can be a challenge. The writing-day salads I joyously chow down six months of the year have no place on a freezing misty day. Most gleeful wintery bulk-cooks are swimming in creamy carbs. And while I have a ton of low-carb bakes I make and freeze in heroic quantities, I figured the inaugural recipe should be a tad more accessible.

I'd been puzzling over this for two months. Then we got Covid, just as we'd run the freezer down in advance of Christmas cooking, and I went through my recipe list for "What can I make in five minutes, while feverish and swaying, which will sort us out for several days?" and returned to this absolute marvel:

Bhakti dahl soup

Bhakti Dahl Soup is a warming, bright and fragrant lentil soup, lively with ginger and chilli. It's reviving, nourishing, and incredibly quick to put on. As a bonus, it's vegan and gluten-free. (I'm an omnivore and gluten-enthusiast, but I'll make sure recipes I post here either suit everyone or are easily adaptable.) And it wins prizes for thriftiness.

Why it's quick: It uses hing, aka asafoetida, aka yellow powder, instead of onions and garlic, which cuts down on prep time. If you have a food-chopper, you can throw the ginger and chilli together into that, to speed it up still more. The only other prep is grating a courgette. The rest is frying spices, opening a tin of tomatoes, and pouring things into the pot. So with five minutes' prep, you've got a six-portion soup which freezes beautifully. It does need to simmer for 30-40 mins, but you can carry on writing while it does. If it's just for you, freeze the other 5 portions for future writing sessions: it freezes perfectly. And if you're feeding a household army, it's very easy to double the recipe, or even triple it if you have a big enough pot.

Bhakti dahl soup recipeScroll on for the recipe or download it as a PDF here

To use the PDF as a scrollable on your phone, download Adobe Acrobat Reader free from Google Play or the Apple Store. When you open your PDF in the Adobe Acrobat Reader app, tap the Liquid Mode icon at the top for easy scrolling. I've repeated quantities in the method, so you don't need to scroll back and forth while cooking.

Bhakti Dahl Soup

Serving and times

  • Active time: 5–10 mins
  • Simmering: 30–40 minutes
  • Makes: 5–6 portions

Ingredients

Spices

  • 1 Tablespoon cumin seeds
  • 1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds
  • 1–2 inches ginger, finely chopped / grated
  • 1–2 green chillis, finely chopped
  • ½ teaspoon hing (also called asafoetida or yellow powder)
  • 1 teaspoon turmeric

Other ingredients

  • 1 Tablespoon ghee or oil
  • 1 courgette, grated
  • 1 teacup red lentils (170g)
  • 1 tin tomatoes
  • 5 teacups boiling water (1 litre)
  • 1 teaspoon salt

Optional: to serve

  • Fresh coriander, if you have any and fancy it
  • Handful of spinach leaves stirred in and wilted just before serving
  • Generous dollop of yoghurt

Method

  • Grate 1 courgette and discard the top.
  • Chop / grate 1–2 inches ginger and 1–2 chillies.
  • Boil a litre of water in the kettle.
  • Heat 1 Tablespoon oil or ghee to medium-high in a good-sized pot.
  • Add the dry spices: 1 Tablespoon cumin seeds, 1 Tablespoon black mustard seeds.
  • As soon as the mustard seeds start to crackle like tiny popcorn (usually about 30 seconds), turn the heat to medium-low and add the wet spices: ginger and chilli.
  • Stir for 30 seconds or so till fragrant, then add the powdered spices: ½ teaspoon hing, 1 teaspoon turmeric.
  • Stir to mix well then add a teacup of red lentils (170g approx) and the grated courgette. Add the tin of tomatoes and 5 teacups (1 litre) of hot water. If the tomatoes are whole, use a potato masher to break them down.
  • Stir in a teaspoon salt.
  • Simmer for 30–40 minutes till the lentils are soft and mostly broken down.
  • Serve it as it is, or add whatever you fancy: a handful of fresh spinach stirred through to wilt down, a sprinkling of fresh coriander on top, a dollop of yogurt in it. Bliss out on the lively flavours and enjoy your writing!

Notes

  • Weights and measures: This recipe is very happy with approximation. I use an actual teacup instead of weighing / measuring, with a 1:5 ratio of lentils:water.
  • Ginger & chilli: Original recipe says 1 inch ginger, 1 chilli; I double both. (And I sometimes add more chillis, if they’re mild. I like heat.)
  • Storing ginger: When you buy it, cut off any very tough bits of skin, chop it into 1-inch lengths, and freeze it in a ziplock bag: you then always have fresh ginger to hand. To use it, I blitz it from frozen in my food chopper, along with the chilli. You can also grate it. I don’t bother peeling it.
  • Hing aka asafoetida aka yellow powder: If you don’t know it, Hare Krishna recipes use this in lieu of onion or garlic and you’ll smell why! You can find it in most Asian groceries (eg Tahmid Stores on Cowley Road), usually in a bright yellow container. It comes from the resin of giant fennel plants and is wonderfully pungent.
  • Freezing & portioning: Always cool food fast to freeze it, and freeze it in the portion sizes you need. I allow just under 300ml per person. To label it, I stick masking tape on the tupperware and write in Sharpie.

Recipe credits: The Higher Taste (Hare Krishna recipe book)

Enjoy! And if you make it and use Instagram or Facebook, do tag me: I'm always thrilled to see people making the recipes I've sent them.

Can't bear to stop poeming?


Can't Bear to Stop?

If November’s poem a day has whetted your appetite and you can’t bear to stop, don’t worry: the Meddling with Poetry course is starting in February and I’ve got plenty to keep you going till then!

The first time I wrote a poem a day for a month, I learnt more about writing poetry from doing that than from years of study, and my final poem was a rondine with the refrain "I never want to stop":

I never want to stop this daily dip
in unexpected worlds: I step and drop:
a landscape springs to life, forgotten shop
of dusty dreams, or in a steampunk ship
ballooning up, a man extends his grip
and even if these hopeful visions pop,
I never want to stop

exploring. This is me: my dreams outstrip
reality, and when my hopes should flop,
I tie balloons to ships, like I could swap
a wish for truth. Though all my castles slip,
I never want to stop.

I remembered the poem as joyful, but on rereading, it's strangely wistful. It was a difficult time, and writing a poem a day had helped me recognise that, and also navigate it. So, I didn't stop. I kept on for years and regularly return to it. And every time, I get that same double-win: I learn a ton more about writing poems, and the process itself is a compass and a rudder in my life.

As tumultuous teenagers, so many of us reach for poetry, to process it all. But as adults, with much bigger things going on, and many more stresses, we don't. Somewhere along the line, people are taught that poetry isn't for them, is too complicated, is silly or pointless... and this unbelievably joyful powerful tool for our mental and emotional health just sits in our toolbox, unused.

Meddling with Poetry: poetry is for playing with, poetry is for everyone That's why I created the Meddling with Poetry course. Writing poetry is far too useful to be locked away in an elitist golden cage. It should fly free, accessible to everyone. Poetry is for playing with: it does seriously wonderful things, but we don't have to be serious about it; we can meddle with it. And poetry is for everyone: it's part of our birthright of language, from nursery rhymes through to song lyrics through to the kind of acrostic wreathed sestinas I get up to when I want to surf the big waves. It belongs to you.

The course is eight glorious weeks, one evening a week, exploring a host of approaches to poetry and different types of poems. All levels are welcome, from total newbies to hardened bards. You can join online (Thursday evenings) OR in person in Oxford (Wednesday evenings), and I'm looking at opening up an international online version. The poem-a-day part is completely optional, but if you want to try it, your weekly poem-a-day booklets give you everything you need – and as they gradually assemble, they form a fantastic little poetry bible of 56 lovely forms, complete with contemporary examples, which you can constantly dip back into. 

And as an early-bird offer: All the course fees are going up from 1 Jan, but if you book before the end of the year, you can still join at the old price of £275. (You don't need to pay the full amount by the end of the year, just the deposit of £75.) Read all the lovely details, reviews, and get the early-bird discount here.

Meanwhile...

If you're already hooked on poeming, and December and January are looking like a barren featureless desert without your regular dose of poem-writing, here's plenty to keep you going!

The Writers' Greenhouse Poem a Day page

My Poem a Day page with its 30 prompts will stay up till the start of Feb, so if you missed out on any of those, you can dip in anytime.

The NaPoWriMo archives

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

Poetry School

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

The Poet's Garrett

After vanishing for several years, The Poet's Garrett is back with a new web address. This is a hugely comprehensive archive of forms, which you can search by national origin and the number of lines. It often has quite weak examples, but that can be heartening! I especially love that it has lists of poem types grouped by how many lines they have: always handy when you want to write an acrostic poem.

My newsletter

I also send out writing inspiration and help on my newsletter – I email about once a month and each email has a batch of four Writing Skills: a form / genre skill, an exercise skill, a themed call for submissions, and an exercise skill featuring an online resource. It's a mix of fiction and poetry prompts and often individual skills can be used for either. To get that, you can sign up here.






 

Tick which emails you'd like to get (you can tick both):

Happy poeming!


Cracking dialogue scenes


Hone Your Style: Said -ly Hunt. Free writing skill.

 “It’s our style,” she said brusquely.
     He frowned. “Is it really, though?”
     She laughed scornfully. “Who else’s would it be?”
     “And you haven’t heard these phrases before?” He raised an eyebrow.
     She bit her lip. “Are we badly written?” she said worriedly.
     He shrugged. “I think we’re just first draft.”

Brusquely, scornfully, worriedly; frowning, laughing, shrugging, and eyebrows: that's what first draft is all about. And so it should be! But if we leave it like that, that's not really our style. To launch the online HONE YOUR STYLE workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills for you, to whet your appetite and get you exploring your own sense of style. And here's the second: A Said –ly Hunt, a lovely skill to dramatically improve any dialogue scene.

In first draft, while you're hearing the back and forth of the conversation, and every nuance of every line, all the ___ly words come out to play: said sceptically, said ruefully, said wryly, said drily, said anxiously, said teasingly, said sternly, said brusquely, and so on. That's fine! We're in the thrall of invention; we want to capture everything and get it down on the page. But we don't want to leave it like that.

So in the next draft, we go on a ___ly hunt. (I redraft one scene at a time, before moving on to the next scene, while it's all still fresh and alive in my mind.) And we change all those ___ly words to actions. She said sceptically: She raised her eyebrows. He said sternly: He frowned. She said worriedly: She bit her lip. He said casually: He shrugged.

Better, definitely better, but not the gold standard. Those are still some pretty familiar phrases. And rapidly the scene is a slew of sighing, shrugging, grimacing, head shaking, and a metric ton of eyebrow action. (So many eyebrows.)

A few of those are fine, for transparent prose, but for the most part we want to take it a step further. What would that specific character, in that time and place, do to show that emotion? Here are a few of my recent edits.

     Shakily, she stood up and began packing her writing box with ink, pen, and paper.
     “You don’t need that, you’re taking the afternoon off!”
     “Please,” she said tensely. “I have to have it – I can’t…”

becomes

     Shakily, she stood up and began packing her writing box with ink, pen, and paper.
     “You don’t need that, you’re taking the afternoon off!”
     “Please.” Her hand gripped its side, her knuckles pale. “I have to have it – I can’t…”

In another scene, two lovers have been reunited after a time apart and are sprawled on the mattress catching up.

     “I see. Would this be anything to do with a boatful of treasure belonging to you turning up in front of Culpeper’s at dawn?” she said wryly.
     He smiled ruefully. “I can’t say.”

"said wryly" I just deleted: her words are wry enough on their own. "ruefully": I struggled with that. I had to go back to the underlying meaning: what does it mean for him to smile ruefully? He wants to tell her and can't. He's trying to soften his refusal. Okay…

     “I see. Would this be anything to do with a boatful of treasure belonging to you turning up in front of Culpeper’s at dawn?”
     He hooked his leg over hers, his calf rasping gently against her thigh. “I can’t say.”

These actions are now exactly specific to that character, in that scene, in that location: we're a long way from all-purpose shrugging and eyebrow-raising. And we've moved from some pretty pedestrian first-draft to passable transparent prose to a smooth scene brimming with natural action and bonus characterisation. That's what we're after! What's more, once the character actions are carrying the tone, I can lose some of the other __ly words or all-purpose actions by just crossing them out.

So, that's what we're going to do. If you have a first-draft scene with plenty of dialogue and __ly words / shrugging etc, you can just leap straight into that. Alternately, we can create some first-draft material to play with. Because those character actions are so specific to them, there, then, we need to gather a few things first: two characters, who're chatting; somewhere with stuff for them to do; and something suitably fraught for them to discuss, to bring out all those lovely emotions. So here we go:

  • Your two characters: grab two from this handy ran-gen
  • Somewhere with stuff for them to do: They're cleaning / clearing out an old workshop. This one, if you like.
  • Something suitably fraught to discuss: Their mutual friend has been causing trouble and generally doing wrong. They both like this person, are frustrated with them, and they're at odds for how to approach the situation / what to do about it.

To make this a ten-minuter, spend five minutes writing the scene, completely freely, making sure to include plenty of dialogue and all those ___ly words we use to capture our sense of the tone. Then for the next five minutes, go on a said __ly hunt: what very character-specific and scene-specific actions can you replace those with?

Why this skill?

Honing your style is part discovering our complete and giddying freedom, to write exactly as we please, and part eyeing up and finessing our prose, line by line. That's why we don't want to put the brakes on in first draft: when we let loose, more of our original and unusual phrasing can leap out, because we aren't censoring it. Alongside that, though, comes a rash of familiar copy-paste phrases: phrases we grab ready-made off the language shelf, clichรฉs we dash down as shorthand markers, to hastily capture in words everything we're imagining. Those worn-out workmanlike phrases are like battered scaffolding: they're not pretty; we don't want them to stay there; but we damn well need them while we're still building the thing!

So we write our first drafts with complete freedom, and then we go back and finesse. For everything that's overly familiar, we think: is this what I want, in my style, in this scene? Sometimes, we do: sometimes people shrug. Often, we really did just grab the first phrase to hand and by pushing it further, we can find something far more original, vivid, specific – and unique to our own style.

The HONE YOUR STYLE workshop is two half-days this winter, live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore what makes quality prose of every flavour and hone your own style. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people.  Click here for details and to vote for which weekend it runs.

Hone Your Style: December workshop online

Writing Like Yourself


Hone Your Style: TITLE. Free writing skill.

"It's very odd for me reading young Neil Gaiman," says older Gaiman. "Cos I remember being him, and writing that, but I had no style."
    "I told you, when you stopped writing like everyone you loved and wrote like yourself, you'd be great," says Jo Fletcher.
   "You did, you did."
World Fantasy Con interview, Brighton, 2013

Most of us, when we start writing, try to write like "a proper writer". And if we've been reading good writing, we often make a decent fist of it, at least for a while. Like ChatGPT, we turn out a passable collage of what constitutes good writing. Like ChatGPT, there's something curiously wrong about it: not quite uncanny valley, just... somehow a little pedestrian? And that's because, at that stage, we're not yet writing like ourselves.

To launch the online HONE YOUR STYLE winter workshop, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to whet your appetite, get your pen moving, and give you a sense of the fresh possibilities of your own unique style – indeed, styles. And here's the first: As X As...

The familiar clichรฉd similes – cold as ice, hot as fire, etc – are absolutely fine in first draft. You don't want to slam on the brakes in the middle of storming out a scene because you wrote "white as snow". And for very transparent prose, we do sometimes use those as well. But often you want a more original comparison, or one that reflects your character or your world better. So come the second draft of that scene, you're staring into the middle distance, wondering, What does my character think is really hot? What’s really hot in my world? What things are really hot?

Enter A Dictionary of Similes, by Frank J. Wilstach! First published in 1916, this is an incredibly comprehensive list of similes across literature, from all sorts of authors. We are not planning to nick other people’s similes, mind. Rather, seeing all the different things other people have used kicks off all sorts of ideas you might not have had otherwise: “hot as black pudding” suddenly suggests all sorts of other incredibly hot food; “hot as Hades” suggests other hells and places; “hot as a monkey” – wtf, Shakespeare? – suggests some kind of writer’s crisis. (You can't win 'em all. Even if you're Shakespeare.)

So, of these super-common things-we-need-idioms for, pick 3–5:

  • hot
  • cold
  • white
  • black
  • good
  • happy
  • rich
  • poor
  • clever
  • stubborn

Then, for each one you chose, look it up in A Dictionary of Similes and use those similes to help you think of your own original versions. Go for three or more similes for each of the words you chose: that's easier than just picking one, because you don't have to pick The One Perfect One.

How you approach this varies depending on what you're writing. If you have a story or novel in progress, think about what your own character would use, or what suits your own world. If you want to create a story or a bit of flash-fiction (a very short story), choose the more unusual similes that appeal to you or tickle you, and work outwards from there to get a sense of your character and/or world. If that simile is particular to your character, what does that tell you about them? Or if it's specific to a place or imaginary world, what does that tell you about the setting? If you're writing poems, push yourself to find the most unusual comparisons you can that still make intuitive sense to you. You can use them in the poem or take a more outlandish simile and explore it through a poem.

Why this skill?

Similes are where the familiar grain of our language is at its most obvious: the standard phrases we use because everyone else does, a communication shortcut. That's why the usual ones are often used in transparent prose, where we don't want to notice the prose, just the story it's telling. Because they're so familiar, though, they lack impact. We've heard "cold as ice" so many times that it doesn't instantly conjure up a visceral sense of cold. But how about "cold as frozen steel"? That makes me wince with cold. Playing with creating your own similes is a wonderfully fun way to make the language your own – and that's what finding, and honing, your style is all about: making the language your own.

The HONE YOUR STYLE workshop is two half-days this winter, live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore what makes quality prose of every flavour and hone your own style. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of creative people. Click here for details and to vote for which weekend it runs. And to make sure you don't miss the next Writing Skill, sign up to the newsletter on the side / underneath this post.

Hone Your Style: December workshop online

Writing Skill: Squashed Sardines


Ghostly + Gothic: Squashed Sardines. Free writing skill.

All five of us are prowling the house in darkness, tiptoeing from room to room, silently opening cupboards and blindly feeling inside them. I look up, eyes straining to count the shadowy figures. I can only see four.
    "Andrew? Has anyone seen Andrew?"
    "What room was he in last?"
    "He's gone!"
    And then a few minutes later...
    "Troye, is that you?"
    "No, it's Dyl, I haven't seen him."
    "He was here just a minute ago!"

Welcome to Squashed Sardines, deliciously creepy game of my childhood and the basis of a lovely new Writing Skill for you. This is the second of the two free Writing Skills, as the GHOSTLY + GOTHIC workshop creeps nearer, to whet your appetite for all things uncanny.

A quick aside for definitions. Gothic and horror are closely related, but they're not the same. The Gothic can be mysterious, eerie, uncanny, even creepy, but it doesn't use the shock, gore, or violence of horror. The Gothic is spine-tingles land; horror is scream land. The October workshop is 100% firmly about the Gothic, not horror, but you can use this writing skill for either: you choose whatever appeals to you.

So, back to the Squashed Sardines! This is one we played as kids, when there were a bunch of us about. For the game, it has to be nighttime. All the lights in the house must be off. The adults are confined to a single lit room, or outside if it's a summer night. (In South Africa, they'd generally be outside around the remnants of a fire, with candles, while us kids took over the house.) One person hides first, while everyone else waits in one place – usually the bathroom, which didn't have anywhere decent to hide. We all count to 100. Then we all split up to find the person who's hidden... 

But when you find them, you don't say. You just hide with them. You're all friends, while you're looking together. As soon as you find the hiding place, you switch sides.

For those who're roaming the darkness, looking, it's absolutely chilling. The steady disappearances of your friends are unnerving. For those who've found the person hiding and are all squashed in the same place hiding together (hence Squashed Sardines), it's increasingly hilarious. And generally, the last person finds everyone else by tracking down the uncontrollable giggles. Last person to find the rest gets a dot of shoe polish on their face and the game starts again. As one of the youngest, I generally finished the night looking like a victim of the Black Plague, with all my shoe-polish dots!

The same principle is used in a lot of Gothic and horror stories. You start with a group of people, all distinct and friendly, and then... one by one... you lose them. In the Gothic, they likely just vanish. In horror, you might find their bodies. In either, you might lose them metaphorically instead of literally, as they switch to the other side, whatever the other side is. They start humming the same mindless tune as the ghost, or they stop being able to answer questions, or their eyes turn completely black, or you see streaks of stone starting to creep up their arms... whatever it is that signifies they've switched sides.

So, you're going to play a story game of Squashed Sardines, in writing.

If you prefer to plan before you write, spend 5 mins swiftly mapping it out first:

  • five characters
  • what's distinct about each
  • where they are
  • if they vanish or if they switch sides in some other way
  • if the latter, what signifies that someone's "switched"

Then dash off 5 mins of writing (or more, if you fancy).

If you prefer writing to discover, start off just with where they are (that all-important sense of place), and then discover the characters, what's creepy about the place, and what happens as you write. 

Either way, if you want some inspiration for where they are, have a look at my Writers' Links for Place. And have fun with it! Creepy, sinister fun...

Why this skill?

This skill plays with two crucial aspects of the Gothic and of horror, both equally useful to any story where you want an unsettling or scary part. The first is slow-rising tension. Emotions need to build in stories, layer by layer: we can't just leap to "It was terrifying!" The unease and trepidation that goes before is what creates the impact. To make that work, we need a series of things: having one character in a constant state of unease, without fresh cause for alarm, won't create those layers. Using the one-by-one disappearance of the characters gives you in-built layers and development. Once you've played around with that, you can take it further, finding other ways to build in layers, development, and fresh causes of alarm.

The second aspect is using a sense of place to set the mood. In Gothic stories, place is absolutely crucial – an ominous setting is one of the defining features of the genre. They offer us a wonderful repertoire of ways to use description for atmosphere, whether that's the classic castle on a stormy night, a haunted house, or an abandoned store in a desert with its slowly creaking sign. Using description to create a creepy mood shows you just how powerful description can be – and that you can use it to create any mood you want.

The GHOSTLY+GOTHIC workshop is on 28–29 October, live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore the dark and misty genre of the Gothic, and create your own Gothic story. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of story-loving people. Click here for more details and to book. Bookings close on Thursday 26 October.

Ghostly + Gothic: October workshop online

Writing Skill: The Sound of Silence


Ghostly + Gothic: Sound of Silence. Free writing skill.

Take ten minutes to discover what you can create, and what strange and wonderful effects you can produce. And after ten minutes, you'll be left holding a mysterious new poem or tiny short story, as if it materialised from thin air to visit you. How? Well, as the GHOSTLY + GOTHIC workshop creeps nearer, I've got a brace of free Writing Skills lined up for you, to whet your appetite and get your pen moving. And here's the first: The Sound of Silence

In any kind of writing, silence is one of those things that we need to evoke rather than name, for it to create any effect on the reader. Counterintuitively, the way we do that is with sound. Tiny, quiet sounds. There's a reason the clichรฉ for a long silence is "Somewhere in the distance, a dog barked": it's only when everything else falls still that we hear those distant or quiet sounds.

You can use this to create a ghostly + gothic poem or a piece of flash fiction (a very short story). Start off by playing with silence: you can use the place where you are right now, a very quiet place that you've visited, or a memory of a very quiet time. Create its silence by describing all the tiny sounds you can hear. To keep it to ten minutes, spend seven minutes just describing those tiny sounds as precisely as you can. (If you're hankering for a longer stretch of writing, you could spend 15 minutes on the description.)

If you're creating a poem: To lift the description into a sense of meaning infusing your poem, think what that silence might mean to your poem's narrator, or what realisation they might come to in it. (The poem's narrator can be you, but doesn't have to be.) Include that meaning or realisation in the final lines, keeping it as discreet as you can: we want the sense of meaning to infuse a poem, not to label it.

If you're creating a tiny short story: To storify your description, you could take the same approach of realisation as the poemers, as a quiet piece of literary fiction. Alternately, you could tap into the potential creepiness of silence with a final revelatory line that explains, chillingly, the reason for the silence. Then go back to the start of your piece and add a first line or two to tell us who the character in the space is and why they're there, and introduce some sort of question that will make us want to read on to find out more.

Why this skill?

When we want to create a particular effect for the reader – a sense of silence, a creepy atmosphere, a particular emotion – it almost never works to simply the name the thing we want to evoke. Concentrating on the small ingredients that add up to that effect works far better and pulls the reader into the experience, as something they're sharing, rather than telling them about it. This is especially useful for GHOSTLY+GOTHIC stories, which depend so much on atmosphere and wildly heightened emotions. Once you've practised this skill with silence, you can explore it further with other effects you might want to create: what actions will show a character's excitement, trepidation, fear? What tiny ingredients turn an empty sunlit room for peaceful to unnerving? 

The GHOSTLY+GOTHIC workshop is on 28–29 October, live, online, and open to bookings from anywhere in the world. Through games, discussion, and quick-fire writing, you'll explore the dark and misty genre of the Gothic, and create your own Gothic story. All in fabulous company with a lovely bunch of story-loving people. Click here for more details and to book. And to make sure you don't miss next week's Writing Skill, sign up to the newsletter on the side / underneath this post.

Ghostly + Gothic: October workshop online

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