Favourite Things and a New Short Story Course

It’s been a busy term and, I’m ashamed to say, almost three months since the last post. Not that we weren’t devising exercises and coming up with writing ideas! But you get so caught up in one thing (teaching), that other things get a bit neglected. That’s often what happens with writing in general… with all our good intentions, something (life!) gets in the way and we land up forgetting about one of the things we love doing. It was nice to suddenly remember… ah, it’s time to put up a new post, think up a new exercise.

Our characters, too, will have things that they love doing. Have you character rediscover something that they used to love doing more often. Fishing, perhaps. Or just reading a book in a cafe in the middle of the day. It might be a good boogie that they haven’t had in a long time. Write about them rediscovering and doing this thing that they love. They might have come across it by accident, or perhaps someone encouraged them to do it. Think about how this thing – hiking, playing the guitar, baking bread – is also linked to a memory from another time in their life. Surprise yourself. Discover something new about your character.

And talking about new things… we’ll be running a Short Story Course this coming term. It’ll be on Monday evenings, and we’ll be exploring traditional and experimental stories, as well as looking at where best to send your stories.

In the meantime, have a wonderful festive season. Eat. Write. Rest.

Make Accidents Happen: Finding a Perspective

Something happens and everything changes. You break a leg, someone you love disappears, you win a major prize, and what you thought was your story – your life! – is turned upside down. On a recent holiday to Amsterdam, I broke a bone in my foot, and what was meant to be a week of fun in Holland, turned out to be two weeks on the sofa with a plaster cast in a strange flat. I finally got to watch Rear Window, and got to thinking how some stories rely on an accident, or some dreadful news, or some wonderful stroke of luck. For the purposes of this post, let’s call all these occurrences “accidents”.

THE EXERCISE: This exercise works best with a story you’ve already written. Take a story (or even a whole novel – one that you’ve abandoned, preferably) that you’ve had in your drawer for a while, a story you’ve been struggling with, perhaps even given up on. Now give the character an “accident” to deal with. Maybe they’ve been in an accident, or someone they know has been in an accident, or they’ve just won an award, or someone they love has been arrested. Write about how they deal with this new reality in their life. Think about Stephen King’s Misery; revisit Rear Window.

Besides the possibility that your story may need new drama, it could also be that what you’ve written so far is just you getting to know the character, and the accident is the point where the real story can really begin. This doesn’t mean that you have to scrap everything you’ve written so far; maybe now everything will be seen in light of this new “accident”. The accident may also provide you with the point of view you’ve been looking for. Take the story of the quiet, small-town middle-aged woman that you’ve already written… now tell it from her perspective after she has won a major TV talent show. Take the story you’ve already written about the couple who is breaking up, now tell it from the point of view of one of them after the other has disappeared without a trace.

This is an exercise in adding drama to a story, but more than that, it is an exercise in finding the right point in time from which to tell a story.

Thinking Back, Linking Back

We’ve just come to the end of two summer intensive workshops. A week of focused writing and thinking about writing, exploring character and dialogue and metaphors and the more abstract questions of “Why I Write”. (Cue George Orwell’s brilliant essay.) Often during an intense time of work, we don’t get the opportunity to figure out what we’ve learnt, or even how we feel about the experience, and it can take weeks for the experience to be absorbed into our system.

Put your character at the end of a concentrated time of work, maybe a painter at the end of a painting, a host at the end of a dinner party. Or if you’re writing memoir, think about a time when you completed a period of focused work – a project, a relationship, a course, a trip. Then have your character looking back at what they did, what they learnt, what they remember.

Even if your story is told in the present tense, your character will also be looking back now and then. If this is the case, such an exercise would be a way to move out of the present tense, to create more variety, more movement in time in the narrative. This may also be a more interesting way to tell the story of the dinner party, the retreat, the painting. A character reviewing an experience when it is still fresh in their mind, not necessarily with too much hindsight. The emotional impact will still be fresh, the different people involved in the experience still very much present in the character’s thoughts.

You could also write about how this experience triggers a memory of a similar experience in the character’s past (or your past), or evokes a similar feeling in the character, maybe something they’ve forgotten until now. A narrative likes layers, so thinking about how one experience links to others, can only be a good thing!

Summer Holidays

I’m just going on holiday, and reflecting about how we can use holidays in fiction to reveal new aspects of our characters which might not show at home. A holiday can confine two people in a new place – tensions, rows and break-ups can ensue. A holiday can reveal the character’s dreams and look at how they cope when reality falls short. Couples can disagree about what to do on holiday – one of them wants to laze on the beach all day, the other wants to explore the city. Or one of them might get ill or lose their passport and tensions emerge.

A holiday creates a complete new change of scene – great for a change of page, colour, and location. Or you could set a whole short story on holiday, giving the story an exotic backdrop and reducing the cast of characters you need to good effect.
Even if your characters don’t actually go on holiday, just thinking about going away can help – think of a character musing about a holiday that never happens or fantasizing about what will happen when they go away. Also, try writing a dialogue between two characters about going on holiday. Do they diagree and argue about where to go? And are they really, under the surface, talking about something else? Write on and see if a subtext emerges.

And if you’re going on holiday yourself, why not take a notebook, and make some notes while you’re lazing by the pool or sitting in a cafe. And above all, enjoy your break!

Make a Speech

Join us for a launch party to celebrate Gerda Pearce’s debut novel Long Lies the Shadow. Drinks and nibbles from 5.30pm at The New Cavendish Club on Tuesday, 28th June.

Gerda is a long-standing CCWC writer and will be reading from the novel, and talking about what it’s like to finally be published!

We know Gerda well and we know she’s not one for speaking in public, but having your book out there pretty much demands that of one. This article says it all.

As an exercise, think about a situation in which your main character has to make a speech. It could be a wedding, a funeral, a book launch, a prizegiving, a motivational speech, a graduation speech. It could be a speech that they’re remembering or that they’re planning to give. Write that speech. Read it out loud to someone. See what they think. Use their feedback as part of the story. (500 words)

Challenging You and Your Characters

Clockwise from Top: Laurika Bretherton, Peter Miller, Colette Swires, Rosie Rowell, Jennifer Nadel, Barbara Wren, Mark Pendry, Rochelle Gosling, Susan Oke. Middle: Laurika, Atalanta Miller, Peter (images by Laurika)

A few days ago some of the participants on our courses, past and present, whose work features in the Words Made Flesh anthology, read from their work at Woolfson & Tay, a new and exciting bookshop in Bermondsey, South London. And what a great turnout! For quite a few of the readers, this was the first time they’ve read their work in public. People were nervous in the days building up to the event – you could tell from various status updates on Facebook – as well as during the readings. But once it was over, the was a great sense of triumph, and relief.

Doing something you’ve never done before tests your capabilities, takes you to new places, and can terrify as well as surprise (and liberate) you. Whatever happens, you’ll learn something new along the way. Get your main character to do something they’ve never done before, but make it something they’ve always wanted to do, something they’ve fantasized about, or even talked about, but never had the means or the courage to do it. Make them do it. See what happens. Make them do something that you’ll find a challenge to write about. Make it something you’ve never written about before. Challenge your character, but also challenge yourself at the same time.

And if you prefer to writing autobiographically, then do something you’ve never done before, something you’ve dreamt about doing. Then write about it… and tell us what happened.

The Big Moments: Interiority and Drama

The Royal Wedding. Love it or “whatever” it, it’s one of those occasions that makes us think about the big issues that effect us. Like: what do we care about, what’s important in our lives, or what we think about the monarchy, or about marriage in general. It might even make us look at our own love relationship, or the fate of those marriages around us. We might remember Princess Diana and where we were when we heard the news of her death. In fiction, big events are an opportunity to evoke some of your character’s memories, and also provide a context for their thoughts about big issues: love, death, birth, marriage, circumcision, and other issues relevant to their lives.

Write a short story – or if you’re working on a novel, write a scene – in which a character is taking part in, or witnessing a rite-of-passage event. It could be a wedding or a funeral or a bar-mitzvah or taking their child to have her or his first haircut. Use the stages of the experience as a backbone to the story. Notice what they are thinking and remembering at each point. By the end of the occasion they should have reached an understanding about something in their own lives, maybe even made a decision, or changed the way they think about something. Allow your character to be transformed by the event. Big occassions are an opportunity to discover more about your character’s internal world, while, at the same time, a great deal of drama is happening around them.

Changing the Weather

Spring 2011 in London. These have been some of the hottest April days since records began. Taken by surprise, we can now behave as if it’s summer: short sleeves, barbecues, parks, chilled white wine. But there have also been recent examples of the devastating effects of sudden changes in the earth’s behaviour.

Introduce an unexpected change in the weather to your novel, and see how your character behaves. Have this change in the weather impel (or even force) them to do the unexpected, maybe something completely out of character, or something they’ve been meaning to do for a while and this sudden hailstorm, or heatwave, or tornado, or soaring temperatures, or drought shifts their world and makes them act. Think what kind of impact a sudden change in the weather has on you. Note: The more detailed your description of the weather, the clearer it’ll be to you what needs to happen to your character.

Start with describing this sudden change in the weather, look at the bigger picture, how are people around your character behaving? what is the impact on their surroundings? had they been expecting something else?

Reading and Writing (no Arithmetic)

The “simple” exercise would be: Pick up a book you love, the kind of book you’d like to write, and copy it down by hand, word for word. Feel what it’s like, through your body, to write a great book. And once you’ve finished writing out all those Chekhov stories, or that novel by Toni Morrison, or the book of Anne Carson poems, begin your own novel. Reading and imitation is how we form and strengthen our writing voices. Okay, copying out the whole of Beloved might be a bit excessive, so just do a couple of pages. See what happens to your own writing when you go back to it.

A remedy for writer’s block (even though I don’t believe there is such a thing, but that’s for another post): Feeling stuck? Look closely at the opening line of a story or a novel you like. See how the sentence is structured. Start a sentence in the same way, use the same construction to say what you want to say. The opening lines of Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place are: “If you go to Antigua as a tourist, this is what you will see. If you come by airplane…” Do the same for your character’s town… If you go to Portsmouth… If you go to Damascus, this is what you will see… If you go to Rome, to Reykjavik… What will you see if you arrive by plane? Or by boat? Or on foot. Starting the way Kincaid does, using her exact sentence structure, will give you a new perpective, new insight into the world of your story.

We’ll be doing a lot of that close-reading and experimentation in the workshop I’ll be running (fortnightly) from 11 May, 2011. You can see more details by clicking here.

To read more about the importance of reading, check out Italo Calvino’s essay “Why Read the Classics?” in his book of the same title.

February Blues

The grey days and drizzle are dragging on in true British style. After braving the coldest months our determination has dwindled and we sit inside, thinking spring will never come. What better time to crack that novel?
Your character is stuck inside because of the weather. Write an inner monologue and get to grips with their frustrations, their psychology, their voice. Think about what they would be doing if they weren’t trapped. Are they really trapped or are they avoiding something? Are they sheltering from a storm or are they hiding from the heat in their air-conditioned pad? Does the weather reflect their mood or contrast with it?
Think about your story – have you set it in a definite season? If not, why not? How would it change the story if you did?