Archive for category Writing Exercises
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!
If the weird times we live in are making it difficult to concentrate on a longer piece of writing, here’s a short, fun competition to take your mind off things.
June 9th 2020 is the 150th anniversary of the death of Charles Dickens. To mark the occasion the Journalists’ Charity (which was started by Dickens) is holding a competition to pen a portrait of the 21st century character you think would have deserved the author’s attention. This character description should be no longer than 300 words. To guide you, there are examples on the competition page of pen portraits that Dickens wrote about some of his characters such as Scrooge from A Christmas Carol, Miss Tox from Dombey and Son and Mr Bounderby from Hard Times.
The competition winner will be awarded a certificate and a unique depiction of the winning character, drawn by Veteran Fleet Street Cartoonist Stanley McMurtry (MBE) (better known as MAC).
The closing date is June 9th 2020 and entry is free. However, donations to the Journalists’ Charity are welcomed.
Also, entrants must agree to waive any copyright in regard to publication of their work to promote the aims and work of the Journalists’ Charity.
There are no Dickensian pen portraits in A Coffee Break Story Collection but there are 36 short stories and plenty of characters who have caught the eye of competition judges and magazine editors. If you (or a loved one) would like some easy reading to dip in and out of, A Coffee Break Story Collection is available on Kindle and in paperback from Amazon.
I picked up a great piece of editing advice on the internet this week courtesy of short story writer, Dan Purdue.
Dan’s blog post on Editing is worth reading in full but I particularly liked the tip that Dan gives in the very last paragraph of his post. He tries to read his work as though it were written by someone he doesn’t like or by someone who’s won a competition in which he was unplaced. The aim is to tear the piece apart and show what a terrible writer this other person really is.
I’m not good at cutting out chunks of prose or ‘killing my darlings’ but I think Dan’s tip is definitely worth a try. I shall get myself into ‘nasty’ mode before I start editing next time.
This week’s post is prompted by a writing acquaintance who was asking for suggestions of websites that have good creative writing prompts.
Creative writing prompts are useful for those times when the ideas just won’t come. Using a prompt focuses the mind and encourages the words onto the paper. It doesn’t matter if the story then goes off at a tangent from the original prompt – the prompt has already done it’s job by starting the process.
There are various sites offering creative writing prompts. Here are a few to get you started:
- Esther Newton often provides prompts and challenges on her blog
- Throughout June 2016 Writing Magazine has been providing a daily prompt
- Creative Writing Now has a page of forty-four short story ideas. They also offer a free e-book of writing ideas.
- Writing Exercises has lots of ‘random generators’ to create plots, first lines and subjects.
Many writing competitions supply a prompt in the form of a subject or theme. These prompts have the added advantages of a ready market to which your story can be submitted and a deadline to work to.
Do you have a favourite way of generating prompts and ideas?
On Sunday, Andrew Marr was asking Scottish politician Alex Salmond what he would like on his epitaph.
Epitaphs were discussed again on the Today program yesterday and it got me thinking.
An epitaph is a couple of sentences epitomising the dead person i.e. summing up how they lived their life.
It struck me that writing an epitaph might be a good way to get to the heart of a character’s psyche.
I’m sure we’ve all come across those character-creation questionnaires which demand that you fill in everything about your protagonists such as date of birth, hair colour, favourite food, best subject at school and secret fear. I’ve tried doing this but find that I get distracted by stuff that isn’t relevant such as my heroine’s shoe size and what she carries in her handbag.
I feel that what I should be doing is getting to the heart of what my character wants from life, what is stopping him or her from getting it and how they are going to overcome this hurdle by their own efforts. It should be possible to do this in two or three short sentences to fit on a gravestone and then, from these few words, it should be possible to work out what else I need to know about the character’s background.
So I’ve had a quick go at doing this for the hero in my current WIP:
‘A devoted father removed from his son by divorce. He endured unemployment and poverty in order to fulfill his paternal drive.’
Alright, it probably needs polishing and editing before the stone mason gets out his chisel but it helps to focus my mind on what this character wants. Knowing this desire will help to shape his actions through the story and keep him on target to get what he wants.
What about you? Does the twenty (or one hundred) questions method suit your way of working or do you do something completely different to create believable characters?
For those of you who do like the questionnaires as a starting point, there’s a whole array of them here.
There’s no doubt that doing NaNoWriMo is a slog and sometimes you need a break from fighting through all those words by yourself.
So, the other Saturday I went along to a NaNoWriMo ‘Write In’ in Birmingham city centre. The organisers had reserved several tables in a café and, apart from the expectation that each participant would purchase refreshments from the café, the event was free.
When I arrived it was easy to spot the novelists – they all had laptops and their fingers were dancing over the keyboards. It was at this point that I realised I hadn’t fully thought through what a NaNoWriMo event might entail. I’d come armed with a notebook because I wanted a break from the computer screen and time to think about some additional plot twists and/or characters. I hadn’t expected to see such industry.
Nevertheless I was made welcome.
As well as offering the time and space to write, chat or do whatever else NaNo related you fancied, there were some organised activities during the afternoon.
We were given the word of the day to incorporate into our stories. It was ‘pyknic’, meaning ‘short and fat’.
Then it was time for the first ‘Word Wars’ session. The aim was to write as many words as possible in a timed 45 minute session. Without a laptop it was difficult to join in but the silence and atmosphere of work during that time was fantastic and I found myself scribbling outlines for several possible scenes to act as triggers over the forthcoming days. It was definitely time well spent.
There was an interlude to catch our breath and discuss general NaNo stuff. Also at this point the origami bunnies were brought around. For every 10k words completed, a bunny was awarded. I got one because at that point I had around 17,000 words done.
Coffee cups re-filled and cake bought it was time for another ‘Word War’.
As I was leaving a ‘Word Sprint’ was getting under way. Each individual picked a lolly stick at random. The stick contained a number of words and a time limit in which those words should be written.
So, for those lacking motivation or those just needing/wanting to get through a whole pile of words – get yourself along to a NaNoWriMo ‘Write In’. But don’t forget your laptop!
Do any of you do morning pages? By this I mean: write longhand immediately on waking each morning.
Julia Cameron advocates this in her book The Artists’s Way. I haven’t read the book but heard about it from someone who has done morning pages for many years. This lady scribbles down everything that is going on in her head, things she has to do that day, negative thoughts about whatever is going on in her life etc. She finds it clears her brain and enables her to start the day in a better frame of mind. Sometimes it produces something that can be used in a story or elsewhere.
I know that other people get up early to work on their novel or another project, either because it’s the only way they can make time in their day to write or because they just enjoy the quiet at dawn before the rest of the family erupts into activity.
Up until now I’ve lacked the willpower to set the alarm any earlier than absolutely necessary, just to write. But my husband has changed his job and needs to be at work by 7:30 am – forcing us to set the alarm for 6:00 am, and therefore giving me the opportunity to try morning pages.
So I’ve been writing for 25 minutes each day before getting up (with a cup of tea brought to me!).
I decided that I wanted something positive to show for this time so I’m drafting a longer piece than I normally write. I never read back more than a sentence of what I wrote the previous day and I don’t edit anything. I don’t pause to think of the right words, I’m just trying to get the flow of the story down on paper.
It’s a positive experience because I get up knowing that I’ve already ‘achieved’ something and the number of completed A4 pages is growing.
Does anyone else do this – or, as Julia Cameron envisaged, do you write about whatever is on your mind?
There’s no right or wrong in this. Different things work for different people.
I also jotted down some ideas for short stories and I’m going to share them with you because I know that we’d all produce completely different tales (& submit them to different places) from the same initial prompt.
We stayed in Little Lilac Cottage – a tiny 350-year-old dwelling with a king-sized brass bed, a Victorian rolled top bath and open beams on the ceiling. Reading through the guest book I tried to imagine all the other visitors to this romantic cottage, why they came and whether the holiday lived up to expectations:
- Honeymooners – young or old? first or subsequent marriage?
- A couple having an affair – unused to spending so much time together, will they still get on or will guilt take over?
- A holiday to save a marriage – away from it all, can they get their relationship back on track or will it go up in flames?
- First holiday for years without the children – do the couple still have anything in common?
We did plenty of walking and one day came across a set of intertwined initials carved into a tree by a waterfall:
- Who carved them and why?
- What happens when one or both of them come back to revisit the carving?
There’s also plenty of scope for stories with a historical setting:
- Think of all the people who were born and died in our cottage
- A local told us that the last ‘ordinary’ people to live in our cottage brought up 3 boys there – how? The house was barely big enough for the 2 of us!
- The old coffin route from Edale to Castleton. At one time there was no consecrated ground in Edale and all the dead had to be brought over the hill to the church in Castleton
And that final point brings me to my poem – poetry connoisseurs please look away now. The rest of you can blame Julia, Susan and Alison, who all asked to see it after my post about the poetry writing workshop I attended in Castleton.
A Coffin Route Farewell
My baby, wrapped in sacking and loaded on a mule
a tiny corpse under a pauper’s shroud.
My baby, born mute, motionless and far too early
now travels the path toward Castleton.
My baby, cast out from home to ride with a stranger
in search of consecrated land.
Exhausted from birthing I never even held you.
They snatched you away without time for farewell.
My baby, you never shed a tear but my eyes will never be dry again.
We’ve all done those writing exercises with postcards, where you use the picture to provide stimulation for a story or a poem. Last week at my writers’ group we took a different angle on this well-worn activity.
Frances ran an interesting workshop which got us looking at the writing on the back of the card instead of the photo on the front. She provided us with a selection of postcards which were from and to people we didn’t know. Then she broke the activity down into 3 steps:
- Create a pen portrait of the sender of the card by analysing what he/she has written, the handwriting style and the picture they chose.
- Create a pen portrait of the recipient of the card by looking at what information the sender chose to tell them, the manner in which the recipient was addressed etc.
- Create a short scene of what might happen when the sender returns from holiday and meets up with the recipient.
I found this a difficult exercise but it certainly gets the brain cells working when the only clues to your main characters and their relationship with each other, are a few brief, scribbled words. So Frances, thanks for getting the old grey matter working!
In coming years it may get more and more difficult to use postcards as prompts. According to a piece in the Daily Mail, forty years ago one-third of Britons sent a card home from holiday but now only 3% of us pick up a pen whilst we’re on the beach. Instead we tweet, text and Facebook.
When I go away I like to cut all links with ‘reality’ and the fast pace of electronic communication so I send postcards. I like to receive them too – they brighten up my kitchen wall.
What about anyone else?
Writing is a frustrating occupation with little reward. It’s easy to get fed up with the rejections, the publications that don’t bother to reply at all and that blank piece of paper which refuses to be filled with wonderful prose.
So why do any of us keep writing? Why do we pick up a pen or drag ourselves to the keyboard day after day? Is it the pleasure of losing ourselves in another world (in which case it would be easier to just pick up a book written by somebody else)?
Hope is what keeps me going. Hope that the editor might like this article pitch, hope that this story might win the competition or this reader’s letter might bag me the star prize.
This hope is fired by small incidents and minor successes along the way – things that cheer me up when the bigger prizes are eluding me.
One of these was my writing group’s Christmas meeting last week. Our new program secretary, Moira, organised a fun competition for a piece of writing containing the phrase ‘It happened every Christmas’ – with prizes from her attic store cupboard. We all took some food (there was way too much food!) and listened to everyone’s entries. We had fiction, poems, memoir and articles. Moira had the unenviable task of awarding the prizes. I received a scented candle in a pretty box (pictured). It may not be an award to add to my CV but it gave me a boost.
A couple of days ago I met up with my writing buddy, Helen. She didn’t award me any prizes but I did get inspired from our chat about plans for 2012. I came away knowing that I have to produce a certain amount of finished work otherwise I’ll let the side down.
Finally, I’ve been shortlisted in the latest Emerald Writing Workshops competition. It’s good to see a couple of other familiar names on the list – fellow blogger, Susan Jones and Sharon Bee who runs the Fiction Addiction website. Fingers crossed for us all!
So, maybe I haven’t won the Booker this month but there have been plenty of little things to keep me going!