Archive for category Events
Although lockdown is gradually easing, there are still lots of things we can’t do. Groups meeting together indoors is one of them. This has led to the rise and rise of Zoom, video conferencing software that most of us had never heard of at the beginning of March but now use regularly. I take part in Speakers’ Club and Shared Reading on Zoom. We have family catch-ups and quizzes and there’s been guided alcohol tasting too!
On Saturday I tried something new – an all-day Writers’ Retreat on Zoom.
It was organised by Sophy Dale of Fully Booked and ran from 10:30 am to 4:30 pm. There were around twenty of us online and Sophy stopped any chaotic, cross conversation by keeping us all on mute. Instead of speaking we typed in the chat box a few sentences about what we intended working on. This included novels, short stories, blog posts, a translation and a guided meditation, among other things. For those who didn’t have a project in mind, Sophy provided writing prompts and also offered guidance to anyone who was struggling or had questions.
Introductions and explanations over, Sophy set a timer for 45 minutes, we all minimised the Zoom window and started writing.
It’s amazing how a defined time limit and the knowledge that others are beavering away too helps creativity! I focused on the chapter I was writing and the words came quickly.
After 45 minutes we were all called back together to add more comments to the chat window and then take a five minute comfort break before the next writing sprint. At lunchtime Sophy gave us an hour away from the screen and encouraged us to get some fresh air (I mowed the lawn, which went some way to cancelling out the ‘guilt’ I felt for spending a whole day on writing).
Through the course of the day we had five writing sprints. I switched from churning out words to reviewing the structure of the story and ironing out parts of the plot that didn’t work.
At the end of the afternoon there was time for comments on the day and everyone deemed it thoroughly beneficial. Sophy is planning on doing it all again sometime later in the year.
It struck me that a retreat like this would be easily organised by a group of writing friends – but it would require someone to have the paid-for version of Zoom. I fear the continuity of the retreat would be lost if participants had to keep logging into a new meeting every 40 minutes!
Park Runs are held all over the country at 9 am on Saturday mornings. They are free and anyone can take part. All standards of fitness are welcome and at Sutton Park there was a sign ‘Walking Group Meet Here’ – so there was no need to even run. The events are organised and marshalled by volunteers and there is a friendly atmosphere geared towards encouraging everyone to get outside and move more. The only preparation needed before joining a run is online registration. This is a one-off process which generates a unique barcode for each runner. This barcode must be printed, taken to the event and scanned once you’ve crossed the finish line in order to get a time for your run.
At Sutton Park there was a briefing just before the start for first-time runners. The course was described and I had second thoughts when ‘Hill of Doom’, ‘trip hazards’ and a ‘single file wooden bridge with a slat missing’ were mentioned. My aim became to get to the end without falling over.
With my eyes on the ground I successfully negotiated the hazards. The ‘Hill of Doom’ was short and very steep, so I have to admit to walking here. Everything became easier once the course hit tarmac and I became a lot more confident. It was downhill to the finish and to that lovely feeling of having accomplished something.
Park Run results hit the website later the same day. My time was 34:45 and my results emails says, “You finished in 272nd place and were the 78th female out of a field of 398 parkrunners and you came 5th in your age category”. I don’t know how many were in my age category but 5th will do me!
The similarity between writing and running has been pointed out many times before and my Park Run brought it home to me again. Writing and running are both hard work and we don’t always enjoy the actual process – but the ‘high’ produced by having run or having written can’t be beaten!
Maria is a professional storyteller and excellent at drawing the audience into her imaginary world. She does this through the use of her voice, body language and, of course, her choice of words. Maria knows her imaginary world and the characters who inhabit it so well that the listener is soon a believer in that world too. And this was the point that Maria wanted to get across to us during the workshop:
It is essential to spend time thoroughly imagining the setting/world of your story AND the background/motivation of the characters who live in this world.
Maria got us practising this technique in a variety of ways. She began by telling us a captivating story from the Middle Ages about two green children from a green world who accidentally find themselves on Earth and the subsequent problems they have as outsiders who look different. We then:
- Did some role play. One pretending to be the green girl and the others asking her questions about how she felt.
- Did a piece of writing from the point of view of the green girl reflecting on becoming a mother on alien Earth.
- Worked together to create a huge map of the green world and then wrote about the landscape.
- Attempted to write a piece from the point of view of the cave which was the portal between Earth and the green world.
By the end of the day I felt fully immersed in the green world and the character of the green girl. The benefit of doing this for the novel I’m working on would be huge – so that’s my next challenge!
An unexpected bonus from the day was coming face to face with fellow writer and blogger Julia Thorley for the very first time. Julia and I have followed each other’s blogs for several years but never met before. So it was a strange sensation when we looked at each other across the workshop table, each thought the other looked familiar and as soon as we said our names, realisation dawned! It was lovely to get the chance to work together during the workshop – and have our photo taken to mark the occasion! Julia has also written about the day.
I had never heard of the specific skill of ‘Life Writing’ until I applied for a place on a day workshop run by Testimony in Practice at the Library of Birmingham and held last weekend. I came away much wiser and full of advice from Emilie Pine and Carmen-Francesca Banciu.
Emilie is the author of the award-winning collection of personal essays, ‘Notes to Self‘. She used writing exercises based on our own life experiences, relationships and memories to school us in the practice of adding emotion and detail to our writing. She had us switching tenses and view points to test their impact. She told us to delete our fist paragraphs and to take our opening line from somewhere in the middle in order drop the reader straight into the scene.
Carmen is a writer who has chosen to share her life experiences through memoiristic novels. She explained that writing directly about yourself and trauma can be too painful and it can be awkward for the friends and family you include in your work. Turning it into fiction can make it possible to record experiences more honestly. Carmen encouraged us to use our imagination about an object hidden in an envelope and, once revealed, to place that object in a fictional setting. She made us try writing with our left hand in order kick start other areas of the brain and see how that affected our writing.
Both women emphasised several common points, some of which we already know but sometimes fail to implement:
- Put writing at the top of your ‘to do’ list
- Free yourself from the necessity to be good in a first draft. Make it good through editing later.
- Write quickly in whatever pocket of time you have
- Fiction can be a form of testimony and gives the writer the necessary distance to tell a difficult story
- Authenticity in memoir is not always about absolute accuracy but about honesty of intent i.e. the essence of experience.
- A first draft may come up with contradictions, such as ‘I love him’ and ‘I hate him’. It is at the hinge of such contradictions that the real story starts.
- Passages of high emotion can be made manageable for writer and reader by including a less intense interlude of description.
- Slowing the pace and inserting detail can vastly improve a manuscript.
Now I’m raring to get back to my WIP and have the intention of adding increased emotion and fine detail to my work!
This week I went to a preview performance of ‘The National Trust Fan Club’ by comedy performer Helen Wood prior to the show’s Edinburgh Festival run.
The show is an energetic, light-hearted romp around one hundred National Trust venues. There is also much talk about gift shops, tea shops and cream teas. There’s lots of humour and anyone who’s ever visited NT properties will identify with the content.
But what impressed me most about Helen’s performance was the way she remembered all the words! She talked non-stop for an hour and a quarter without the obvious use of any prompt or notes. When I speak to groups I talk for around 45 minutes, 90% of that time without looking at notes. However, I do have four index cards which contain quotes that I read to get the wording correct. I also have the comfort blanket of an A4 sheet containing a list of bullet points which I can glance at, should my mind go blank and I forget which section comes next (rarely happens – touch wood!). Helen had none of this but she did reel off dates, names and statistics.
So, what’s the best way of minimising the use of notes during a talk?
- Do NOT learn the whole speech off-by-heart. Doing this can mean your delivery will lack emotion and if you lose your place, it can be difficult to pick up the thread again.
- Use a list of bullet points to provide a pathway through the speech. If you will be using a lectern, these can be typed onto a sheet of A4. If the notes will be held in your hand, use index cards because they are less obvious than waving a piece of A4 around.
- Memorise the gist (not the exact wording) of what you will say to expand each bullet point. The actual words you use may vary each time you deliver the speech. This gives you the ability to more easily tailor the speech if time requirements change. Plus you are less likely to panic if you forget a sentence or two.
- Practise! It’s time-consuming but always leads to a better performance.
There are more tips on all areas of public speaking in Public Speaking for Absolute Beginners.
Posted by Sally Jenkins in Events, Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector on January 24, 2019
A few years ago I did the PTLLS qualification (Preparing to Teach in the Lifelong Learning Sector) and this week I finally got around to putting it into practice by running my first creative writing workshop. It was organised by FOLIO Sutton Coldfield, held at my local library and free to participants.
On the agenda was creating haiku and writing letters to magazines. I chose these two topics to give a mix of writing for pleasure and for profit plus the pieces were short enough to complete in the two and a half hours allocated to the class. And I already had a basic lesson plan for the haiku section from the ‘micro teach’ I did as part of PTLLS.
The participants were a lovely group of people. The workshop had been billed as ‘An Introduction to Creative Writing’ and most had done either none or very little writing before but they were all enthusiastic. Because we only had a couple of hours together, I chose to do a very quick, basic ice-breaker to start the session. I produced my large, bright orange (imaginary) energy ball and we each said our name as we pretended to pass it around the room and take a burst of energy from from it.
During the workshop I deliberately set most of the writing exercises to be done in pairs so that no one felt put on the spot or awkward if they were struggling to get going. We worked up to writing a haiku by looking at examples, having a pictorial prompt and jotting down ad hoc words and phrases before trying to craft them into the syllable count of a haiku. Similarly, we looked at how to analyse a magazine letters’ page including things like word count, subject matter and tone of the letters printed, before trying to craft a letter ourselves.
There were a few learning points that I took away from the workshop:
- Running a creative writing workshop is like an iceberg – i.e. 9/10 of the work is the invisible preparation done beforehand in creating the exercises, handouts etc.
- It’s very hard to construct a lesson plan with accurate timings about how long each part will take. Sometimes it’s necessary to take a cue from the class – are they still busy writing or are they staring bored into space? During the coffee break the class started asking questions about how I tackle my own writing, this meant the break ran over slightly but I decided that was OK because we were talking about the different ways authors tackle novel writing, which had some benefit to the class participants.
- It’s worth asking participants to complete a feedback form at the end of the session in order to find out how it went (phew! all positive comments!) and what subjects might be popular in future workshops.
After running only one workshop, I don’t profess to be an expert on teaching creative writing – however, I know someone who is! If you’re looking for further information or advice on running creative writing classes, I suggest you take a look at Start a Creative Writing Class: How to Set Up, Run and Teach a Successful Class by my writing buddy Helen Yendall.
Writers are tough people, we are used to rejection and stonewalling from editors, agents and the like. We do not take criticism personally because we know it is only a particular submission that is not up to scratch or does not fit the publication, not the writer herself.
But when it comes to conversing one-to-one with strangers outside of the writing industry we become defensive and touchy about our work. This is especially true of the many thousands of us yet to hit the big time. So, non-writers, when you are introduced to Fred, a writer, at a party, please observe the following rules otherwise he may run away screaming:
- Do not say to Fred, ‘Have you written anything I will have heard of?’ Unless you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, the answer will be no. If you are speaking to J.K. Rowling or E.L. James, they will have been introduced as such. It’s far better to ask Fred, ‘What type of thing do you write?’
- If Fred says, ‘I write short stories’, do not dismiss that as ‘not proper writing’. The craft of bringing life to character and plot in a very short word count is difficult. Even more so when writing to the guidelines and themes of specific publications or competitions. Show admiration for the fact that Fred knows how to make every word earn its place.
- Do not ask Fred how many books he has sold or why you’ve never seen his books on the display tables in Waterstones. Most writers are not big sellers. Think about the millions of books available on Amazon – it’s impossible for us all to be in the top ten. It’s impossible for every book shop to stock us all. Low sales do not equate to a bad book. Low sales may just be symptomatic of a low marketing budget.
- If Fred says he is self-published, do not lose interest. In the past, self-publishing may have been tainted by amateurish books, now this has mostly changed for the better. Self-published authors are power houses of industry. They write, they seek constructive criticism of their manuscript, they use professional editors and proof readers, they learn to format a book, they take on the task of publicity and marketing AND they get on with the task of writing the next book. If Fred says he is self-published ask for his card and make a point of ‘looking inside’ his book on Amazon. It might tempt you to buy.
- Don’t tell Fred you’ve written a great a book and ask him to read the manuscript and give an opinion on it. Most writers won’t have time. They will either have a ‘day’ job or several writing-related irons in the fire in order to make a living. Writing on its own rarely pays a living wage. Instead say, ‘Fred, I value your opinion. How much would you charge to read my manuscript?’
- DO say, ‘Wow! A real life writer. Let me jot down the title of your book. I’ll give it a try. If I like it I’ll write a review and tell my friends.’ Then keep your word – you’ll make a hardworking writer very happy.
Over the past month I’ve done a few speaking engagements. Audiences have included a reading group, a writing group and a couple of social groups for the over fifties.
I’ve noted down a few of the things I’ve learned along the way:
- If using a microphone hold it close to the lips. If you move your head, move the microphone as well – otherwise your voice will fade out!
- If you open the floor to questions at the end and none is immediately forthcoming, jump in with, ‘One question I’m often asked is …..’ and then you can talk about whatever you want.
- Forty-five minutes is a long time to talk and a long time to listen. Maintain attention and renew your speaking energy by breaking the speech into modules or topics. Every time you change module you’ll get a new burst of enthusiasm and the slight change of subject will keep the interest of the audience.
- If you pose a question or ask for a show of hands, be prepared in case you don’t get the response you’d hoped for. A quick quip up your sleeve can be useful in this situation.
- Keep readings from your work short.
- Use as few notes as possible.
- Project your enthusiasm.
- Remember the audience is on your side. They want to enjoy your talk.
- Enjoy it!
Birmingham Literature Festival 2018 is currently underway and one of the first events was an edition of the BBC Radio 4 political panel show, Any Questions. It was broadcast live from Birmingham Repertory Theatre last night (5th October) and repeated again today. I was in the audience for the show (if you listen carefully I’m sure you can pick out my particular clapping!) and, although I’m not a political animal, I thoroughly enjoyed it.
When we arrived, the theatre was surrounded by men in high-vis jackets clearing away the security cordons (fences and concrete bollards) that had been put in place for the Conservative Party Conference – the theatre is only a few paces from the International Convention Centre. We were reminded of the conference again by the ‘warm up’ lady, Midlands BBC political journalist Kathryn Stanczyszyn, who did a great job of recapping the week’s main political events and taking us through the clapping warm-up. We did polite clapping, middling clapping and extremely enthusiastic clapping.
On arrival the audience were asked to write down any questions they’d like to ask the panel. Ten questions were chosen and the questioners brought down to sit in the front row. Then the chair, Jonathan Dimbleby and the four members of the panel were brought on to the stage, Shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott, President of the Greater Birmingham Chamber of Commerce Saquib Bhatti, MP for Rutland and Melton Sir Alan Duncan and the SNP Health Spokesperson Philippa Whiford. With minutes to go before live broadcast, an audience member posed the warm-up question, “What is your favourite Abba track?” The panel’s answers were used as a sound check. We heard the 8 pm pips, the news headlines and then Jonathan Dimbleby was live on air introducing the panel.
Lively discussion followed on Brexit, Theresa May, austerity and the possibility of cyber rather than physical warfare. As opinions bounced from the panelists, the audience graduated through the three types of clapping and added shouts as well. The final question book-ended the warm-up question, “Theresa May came onto the conference platform to ‘Dancing Queen’. What song would you choose?”
Verdict on the evening: Very interesting and I was amazed at how calm the production team and panel were, given it was a live broadcast. I would’ve been a nervous wreck! If you get the chance, go along (it’s free!) or apply to host the show at a venue near you.