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A Writing Workshop

Hello! As a few writers had trouble with today’s Zoom link for The Stay-at-Home Literary Fringe Festival, I’m putting my workshop here on line – in word form. Grab a pen and get writing!

We began by grounding ourselves in place and time, settling into our senses, before freewriting from the simple words: I want. For 3 minutes, we just wrote to the prompt – I want – however we wanted to. The task in freewriting is to keep your hand moving – any time you get stuck, just write – I want. After that, we talked about how we were going to think about wants – and desires – and objectives for the rest of the hour.

We got going with a game of word cricket, a game Vanessa Gebbie plays: I must have played word cricket in one of her workshops about 10 years ago now. Golly! To play word cricket, you need to “catch” words as they’re “thrown” to you – in my game, I held up cards from The Literary Witch’s Oracle, one at a time, introducing 10 cards and 10 words in 10 minutes.

We began with the image of a house. I asked writers to picture a person inside the house – maybe upstairs – and to choose a simple objective. Did the person want to get out of the house – or to stay in? And then the cards came, 1 after the other, until the writers had to accommodate 10 words in their story – 10 words they might not have chosen for themselves.

I drew the cards at random from the pile – and this is what they got: knife, teacup, moon, wings, wolf, doll, lantern, bees, milk, spider. I asked the writers to consider letting the words pull their story forward – driving the character – or using them as obstacles to stop the character from achieving their simple objective. After 10 minutes, the writers had a story. A simple story – but a beginning, nonetheless.

From there, we talked about how objectives build characters. We might not know a lot about those characters, in 10 minutes, but we will know how they respond – to objects and obstacles. We know what she wants – and we see her trying to get it. But how do we raise the stakes of a simple story? We explore what the character is willing to do to achieve her want – her objective – by learning what is at stake.  Who will the character be if they get what they want?  What will happen if they don’t get what they want?  

To learn what’s at stake, we have to consider what will happen if she leaves the house. We might need some backstory to show why she wants to leave – or stay? We might need information about her relationship with the house. Something has happened that made her want what she wants – to stay or go. Characters begin in stories fully-formed, of course. Even in the opening lines of a story, we see characters coping – or not coping – with the world they’re in. Before anything changes – we see who they are (and have become) with what has already happened to them. I asked the writers to consider – what happened in the house before the story you just wrote?  Is she in the house – alone?  Is there someone else usually there? Has someone just left – or is someone about to come?  How does what has already happened influence what they want? We talked about how we would learn about what had happened – before – through how the character perceived her environment as well as the obstacles and objects that arose.

How else do we raise the stakes? We give information on what staying in the house or leaving it means to her. What is the deeper desire – why does she want what she does? If she stays in the house, what will happen?  What does she want to happen for her, in the house?  Who does she imagine she will be?  If she gets out of the house, what will happen?  What does she want to happen for her, outside the house?  Who does she imagine she will be?  This gets at her yearning, her dream.  After all, in a simple story like Cinderella, we know she wants to go to the ball – but what she really wants is to fall in love – and get out of the bad house she’s in.   

Take some time to sketch out this cause and effect, these stakes.  Did the character get out of the house? Did she achieve her desire? Or did the obstacles you placed in front of her – through these words – make it harder for her to get what she wanted?  If she gets what she wants, it’s a happy ending.  If she doesn’t, it’s a tragedy – or she changed her mind. But a story is made more complex – and more compelling – through things being as difficult for characters as possible. How far could you push this simple story to make it matter for your character – and you?  

Stories are lit and fuelled by desire. Characters are driven through the story by what they want – rather than responding to story circumstances. Characters act – even when they are reacting. The reactions – to story elements like the things on the cards – still have to push and pull the characters closer to or further away from their desires, their objectives.  

So what are our objectives? At the start, you wrote – I want – I want. How do obstacles (like things on cards) push and pull what we want? How can we stay active in our own lives, our own stories? What is the yearning that is pulling us forward in the stories of our own lives?  In these strange days we’re living through, how can they not become just another story about a virus – but about a person who was changed by virus – whether through meeting it or avoiding it or trying to keep it out of the house – and survived.  And thrived.  And changed.  

That’s a story we all want to read, isn’t it? However these days are treating you, find ways to keep writing. And why not join me online next week?   

 

  

Thread and Word

Here’s a link to the sound installation made by Thread and Word from my short story for them, called “Your Last”. Click to listen to me or any of the other lovely stories found there which were shared in Margate for The Listening Post at the Book Buoy. Many thanks to artists Elspeth Penfold and Sonia Overall: it’s always painful listening to yourself read anything, but they made it trouble free!

The Listening Post

Do you want to hear a story? The Listening Post will have plenty of them, for you to listen to – and add to, if you wish. This aural collection of short stories, curated for Margate Bookie, are written by local writers (like me!) as well as some of our MA students at Canterbury Christ Church. Intrigued? Come down to the Book Buoy, put on a pair of headphones, and set sail…

A Million Words

There seems to be no agreement on which author first said a writer had to write their “first million words” before they were really ready to write. Some attribute it to Ray Bradbury, while others cite Elmore Leonard namechecking John D. McDonald. I was certain it was Kurt Vonnegut, because he gives so much good advice. Whoever said it, I’m happy to reach my own million-word milestone. While I might not count them, draft after draft, I have proof of them in the form of morning pages: a million words, typed over my first cup of tea. Want your own badge? Join in at 750words.com. As for me, I’ll see you in the morning – doing pages!


MsLexia Short Fiction deadline – coming soon!

I got my start in MsLexia, as they are kind enough to remember. It’s not too late to get your story in for the next Short Fiction Competition Deadline – 30 September. Want more information? Check the blurb below.

Got a great little short almost ready? Get writing!

What If: Write Mind

I have two workshops left with the wonderful new Whitstable initiative Write Mind, developed with WhitLit, the Whitstable Literary Festival, and Canterbury Council. Follow the link to learn more about the programme, including other writing workshops with author Andrew McGuinness and plenty of book chats, and to book your space. Guess what? The workshops are only £5, giving new writers a real chance to have a go!

Saturday 22 June: 11 – 12:30 WHAT IF?
Writers thrive on the game of “what if” to make stories and characters move in unexpected directions. Using a series of prompts & magical objects, workshops writers will work to create improbable worlds where anything can happen!

Saturday 29 June: 11 – 12:30 DRIBBLES & DRABBLES
The final Write Mind workshop will focus on the short-short story: 50 – 100 words, to be exact. Through prompts and guided writing, writers will have the chance to write, edit & polish and short-short story.

Time for morning pages!

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Last week, I had the opportunity to run a series of morning writing workshops for Whitstable Wellness Week. In these workshops, we wrote, we talked about writing, and we looked at all the ways that morning pages can work for writers. I think a lot about writing and morning pages. In fact, I’m thinking about morning pages this morning, while I write my own morning pages, writing my way into the day.
What are morning pages? They’re an idea introduced by Dorothea Brande in Becoming a Writer in 1934 and re-introduced by Julia Cameron in her transformative The Artist’s Way. But the form might be ancient, of course – any time a writer sits down to write with intent in the morning can be considered some kind of morning pages. Brande asks that we wake through the writing, that we reach for pen and paper (or in her case, typewriter) as early as possible, so that we can begin writing before we are fully awake and before the editor in our heads can wake up and tell us the writing’s no good.  Aim for 3 pages in a notebook – or 750 words.  What words?  Brande suggests it doesn’t matter:  you are aiming for “quantity, not quality”.  You are simply filling the pages to train your mind and hand that you are in control of when writing happens – no muse awaits you, no editor can stop you.
In this rapid writing, we are able to come to terms with what we think, as we have written it, and how we feel, as we might not yet have been able to express. New thoughts and feelings, memories and impressions bubble up to the surface, summoned. Somehow between the lists of worries and plans and concerns and intentions, there is always something that seems to come of its own accord, a glimmer of something that hints at something new – a new way forward, a fresh approach, an unexpected connection. We write to fill the pages, to train the mind and fingers for the stamina and discipline that writing demands, but we also create the clean white page and the moment in time that allows for breakthroughs, for the work that is in our heads already to come out and show itself. Done regularly, this action becomes a ritual – and then it becomes a routine. It becomes a normal impulse, allowing a writer to set the day up through her words.  (What if you’re not a morning writer?  Even the idea of “morning” is elastic:  morning pages can begin your “writing day”, whenever that time comes.  If you’re a night writer, morning pages can draw a line under the day that has happened and create the sense of morning, as you settle in.)
I saw all kinds of breakthroughs throughout the week as writers opened their notebooks or laptops and returned to the page. In the beginning, I offered only gentle prompts to get them started – and these prompts could be returned to while writing, in case of feeling stuck or unable to write anything else. If you come back to the prompt and write it, you are always writing. And if there is any kind of “rule” about morning pages, it is that you should keep your hands moving and fill the page before you stop to think about all the reasons you might stop. We used such simple prompts as: I want/I don’t want; I think/I don’t think; I remember/I don’t remember; or Today I/yesterday I, Tomorrow I… Sometimes we wrote ourselves into the room, using all five senses to root us into time and space: what do we see; what do we hear; what do we smell; what do we taste; what can we touch/what touches us. We wrote our way through light and pressure, temperature and proximity, where we were in our bodies, in the room, the building, the town, the world. And from there, there are always new directions, tentacling out from every sense. Sometimes, writers had a story in their heads as they arrived, and they were able to write their way into their own characters, using these five senses, to root them into story-time and story-place: this can be a powerful way for a writer to slip under the skin of a character, to see the world through her eyes and to capture what she notices. And from those sensory details can come whole backstories, memories, connections and objectives. The senses point at a person who whole and formed, capable of her own thoughts and feelings – we only have to follow them and her, into a scene.
Sometimes I offered first lines, “firestarters” as writer/poet/psychogeographer Sonia Overall calls them in her workshops: some lines I pinched from her. “That was when it happened”, and “I could see the fire from there”, and “I can still see it” are the ones I like to use. Sometimes I kept throwing words out – simple nouns for writers to catch and stitch into their writing: this idea of “word cricket” was introduced by write Vanessa Gebbie in a flash fiction workshop. We also talked about how these batches of 750 words could themselves be made of dribbles and drabbles and pieces of flash fiction that might stitch into something larger, such as Sophie van Llewyn’s novella-in-flash Bottled Goods, or simply hint at new ideas that will lead to new projects. Really, the possibilities are limitless. The form of morning pages are elastic enough to contain any thought, idea or feeling: that is what they are, after all – a container. Morning pages contain – and guard – and hold our writing, our sense of selves as writers, and our desire to engage with the words.
There are morning pages workbooks and journals.  There is an online site for morning pages – which I use, 750words.com.  But really, all you need is something to write on and with, along with the determination and will to write.  If we write, we are writers.  When we tell ourselves that this time and this writing matters, that we reach for our writing at the start of the day, we reinforce the idea that our life must align itself around this desire – this urge – to write.  And maybe the universe will follow.
Whether you’re down or up, rushed or calm, so busy you can hardly see – morning pages are a fresh start – every day.  A new beginning, waiting for you.  I believe in their subtle power and have, through almost ten years of writing them, watched them enter and transform my writing life.  It was a genuine pleasure to see the idea take hold in this small, evolving group in Whitstable, and if the group is able to carry on, it will be my genuine pleasure to sit among them, reaching for words.
My next outing on the morning pages train will be at Kent Festival of Writing.  If you’re coming – see you there!

Morning Pages in Whitstable

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There’s a new festival in town:  Whitstable Wellness Week runs 23 – 29 March 2019.  Whitstable Wellness Week offers creative workshops from art to dance, writing to cooking – free.  Organised by Escape to Create’s Catriona Campbell and Red Zebra, which provides social prescribing in East Kent, Whitstable Wellness Week seeks to encourage people living with physical or mental health conditions, and those who are lonely or feeling low, to try one or more creative activity during the week to see if it helps them feel better.

Every morning throughout the festival, I’ll be running a morning pages workshop at the Horsebridge, with tips and prompts to get people writing – and keep them going.  I know morning pages can help anyone to feel better!  For more information, visit Whitstable Wellness Week.  See you at the morning pages!

Upcoming Workshops

imageAhoy!  September was a blur of planning:  I’m currently lecturing for the Creative & Professional Writing programme at Canterbury Christ Church, working with a range of student writers and forms.  But I’m still running workshops out in the world.  I’ll be working on POV, but there are lots of great events here – including a “writer’s circuit” with fellow lecturer Sonia Overall.

Why not pop along to Canterbury and boost your writing?

A new you?

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These are the doldrums between Christmas and New Year, flat land that stretches between the poles that define many of our calendars.  5 days of “Chrimbo Limbo” that span the time between the frenzied, all-consuming build up to a day of food – or faith – and the tail end of the year, one which many will be happy to leave.  From our cars or sofas, from muddy woods or frozen beaches, we can feel the world turning.  Time, flying.  This is a hinge, a pause before the first new day of a new year, filled with possibility.
How can we hang onto this sense of time?  How can we use it to prepare for a new year or a fresh start without creating the feeling that we should “do more” or “be more” or “be new” somehow, which is its own kind of all-consuming frenzy?
I return to the page and the old ritual of morning pages.
I have written about morning pages before, and how to get started on them; it is a practice that continues to sustain me.  It has become a natural – and necessary – start to my day.  A space and time to shape and sharpen my thoughts before the day begins and time sweeps me away in the wake of what it wants.
Morning pages are 3 sheets of A4 (or my preferred online method at 750words.com) written without planning, editing, or censorship.  These are raw words, written faster than we can think, as we come to wakefulness.  That is their power.  It is us, when no one’s looking in a clean space that we define and refine, daily.
It is a place to flex and stretch, mentally and emotionally.  An iron for the mind,  smoothing away the wrinkles.  A meditation made with moving fingers.
These last few months of 2017, I felt too busy to think.  My mind was always scratching away in every direction, trying to make sense of tensions and disappointments, moods and missteps, conflicting bits of information and inspirations.  When I felt there was no time for morning pages, I knew that they were more essential than ever.  How else to keep some control over my own day, other than to take my first 12 minutes or so and write down how I felt, what I wanted, where I wanted to go?  Morning pages became a place to capture 750 words of my work-in-progress, before I had to turn to other projects; somedays, it was the only work I was able to do that day for myself.  Through a very season, and university term, I kept writing morning pages and using them as starting places for scenes and chapters.  Now, at this pause before a new year, I find the WIP is nearing 30K.  It will certainly be over that mark, when we toast a brand new year.
Consciously and unconsciously, 750 words sets me up for writing, however busy the day, because I have focused myself on it.  I have stated my intent.  I have set my brain on that work, as I boil the kettle, as I let out the dog, before the dash and rush to come.
In the new year, I will be teaching many mornings.  For those of you who know me, you know how jealously I guard mornings, when I feel I write at my best.  Though we aren’t always in control of our timetables, I aim to stay in control of my brain and my time, as best I can.  In the coming new year, with all its early starts and pressures, I will seek to continue my practice and share it with students, asking them to begin our day with morning pages.  I hope to introduce them to a practice and a ritual that will nurture their writing and their thinking, so that it might sustain them through their writing lives, as it does mine.  Looking for a new you?  Try an old practice.  Morning pages.
See you on the page.

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